They are inside all of us, buried deep inside our subconscious—these moments of impact. There are places, people, and events that changed who we are becoming. When our lives bump up against something that challenges us or deepens our understanding, we become the sprout that branches off an old limb. Over time you don’t see where the new life began, for it is part of the whole, yet this shoot did have an origin and it changed the life of the tree completely by springing into existence. For me, it is often a fragrance that often brings these pivot points back to the surface.
It was my daughter that first noticed what was to her an offending scent. She wrinkled her nose and covered her face. Turning to see what she was referring to I saw someone carrying a thurible into the church, the small golden incense burner that hangs from chains and swings to release the smoke into the sanctuary. The smell of Frankincense startled my senses and I gasped. What was new to my daughter brought back a well of fourteen-year-old memories flooding through me. I turned to my husband, suddenly that young bride, full of wonder again, and cried, “it smells like Egypt!” He smiled and nodded and I knew he was back there again in his mind, too.
The six months we were part of the Coptic church in Egypt transformed us, one of those points in our lives where we diverged from who we had previously been into something altogether new. It was a phase of life in which every new experience overwhelmed us. I dwelled inside the memories in those moments sitting in the church with my family on Christmas Eve. I was transported to the stone walls of another church where my faith exploded into fresh places.
Nothing in my evangelical upbringing prepared me for seeing the demon-possessed woman writhing on the floor during the healing service at The Cave Church. My Western theology had no space for the quiet, yet forceful priest who commanded men in wheelchairs to stand. I watched in skepticism as thousands of people, Christian and Muslim alike, flooded through the village that housed all of Cairo’s garbage collectors and mounds of trash to the monastery hidden inside the recesses of Mokottam Mountain.
All skepticism evaporated like the smoke rising from the incense burners when I met Abouna Samaan, the man who the community called Father and who truly treated each person who came to him like a beloved child. A week after first meeting him we were on a bus with him and dozens of church members headed out into the desert to the retreat center under construction. Here we were, were two total outsiders, welcomed directly into the fold of the largest church in the Middle East.
My hands shook as I grasped the metal bar next to the window tighter. “Why did you insist we come here if you are so afraid?” my husband whispered above the sound of the cable creaking above us. Our family was perched above the Malaysian rainforest, going ever higher by the moment. We ascended steadily on the steepest and longest single-span cable car in the world.
It was Christmas Day and everything about Langkawi was different than our noisy home in Dhaka, Bangladesh. I knew this was a chance we’d never have again and one that my husband and son were dreaming of, one that we would all remember forever. I wouldn’t let my fears hold us back, so I insisted we come. My daughter, ever cautious like me, reflected my anxiety over the height back at me and I gripped her hand tightly. “We can do this,” I insisted. We were rewarded richly for our courage when we reached the top. The light reflecting off the Andaman Sea, the views extending all the way to Thailand, and the lush forest below—they were worth every racing heartbeat.
I don’t remember always being this anxious. In fact, I remember being quite fearless as a child. As a dancer, I loved to perform. As Drum Major of the marching band, I reveled in winning first place in competitions and being the best. I remember feeling like there was nothing I couldn’t do. As I got older, I feel somehow, I got smaller. More unable to believe in myself. Less sure of my own opinions and gifts. I wanted to be liked. I wanted to be good. I wanted to do all the right things. And I grew afraid.
My adventurous spirit was never quelled, though, even by my fears. I want to see the world, every messy and beautiful corner of it. I want to taste it all and take it in. That’s hard to do cowering in the corner.
In 2021, the word “Dwell” chose me, and I tried to let it guide me to a place of settling, of home. Instead, it led me to dwell deeper in the heart of the God who unsettles us, who shakes us up and pushes us beyond what is comfortable.
This is my home, my place to dwell—in the mystery of the God who always keeps me guessing as to how he could speak into the life of someone like me. I finished the master’s degree I began so many years ago and thought was only a dream for me. We bought a house, and we took steps to put down roots after four years of constant transition. And yet it wasn’t a year of finished goals. It feels like it was only the beginning.
On the last day of the year, the sun tiptoed out from behind the rainclouds that had lingered all week. With trepidation, I descended the trail away from the Ignatius House where I had come to spend the morning in prayer. The soft ground gave way beneath my feet as I left the treetops to walk along the Chattahoochee River.
This river feels as if it has flowed along with me through the year, a companion on what was a frightening and exuberating pilgrimage. In the summer I ventured up to North Georgia twice. Once I went to spend the weekend with the friend that has known my struggles with my calling and my fears probably better than anyone since we were just girls in college; once with the man who has walked beside me on our moves me around the world and back (twice). Even raised going to these mountains, I had never floated down the Chattahoochee—a hallmark Georgia experience. I knew this was an adventure I needed to have.
Twice last summer I tubed down the river for hours. We slowly took in the sights and let our fingers linger in the cold, clear, spring water. In places it was so shallow you could scrape your hands along the rocky bottom. Other spots sent us squealing through rapids and that old familiar frenemy fear made my heart race as the rocks sent us reeling. On those weekends we sat next to the bubbling water and talked about the struggles of the pandemic, the unlikely places God has taken us, and being brave enough to walk on through the fear.
There at the retreat center in Atlanta, the river looked like a different one altogether. After flowing nearly 100 miles south of the mountains, through the city, its wide banks revealed a deep and muddy river that crawled by. It was the same water, but it had been completely transformed by its journey. It was no longer pristine. Yet wide and powerful, it was still surging on toward its destination, unscathed. Continue Reading
The new leaves look as small and fragile as a baby’s fingernail. I smile in wonder as I water the miniature umbrella tree that sits as a quiet reminder to me in my window sill. The bonsai sits soaking up the morning sun doing its slow work. Changes are subtle and take days to notice. It looks like nothing is happening for a long time; then suddenly what appeared dormant emerges.
I am the farthest thing from a gardener. Though I love plants, I can’t keep them alive. Yet, after years of admiring the bonsai garden at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit which I visit several times a year, I finally bought one of the minuscule trees last year. I took great care the first few weeks to make sure it was watered and fertilized. In short order, the leaves drained of their color and started collecting in heaps around the base of the tree.
I read more about the specific type of plant and realized I was over-saturating it. I purchased a humidity tray to keep subtle moisture always nearby. I started watering it only once a week. Yet, I feared it was too late as the branches remained bare for weeks. I kept pouring water into the ceramic, turquoise base every Monday. I didn’t think there was any hope for the weepy branches, but I kept trying.
And then one day as I was watering the apparently dead tree, I saw those tiny leaves beginning to emerge. Something had been happening beneath the dark, moist soil that I couldn’t see. Life had been pulsing inside the branches all along, quietly, imperceptibly.
I started working on a rule of life four years ago sitting under the high arches of the very same abbey church where my little bonsai started its life as a sapling. I sat at the monastery and dreamed of a well-ordered life like the ones the brothers who live there know—one that prioritizes prayer and community, faith and action. One that finally makes sense.
“A rule of life aims to create a framework for being and becoming, rather than checking something off a list. Practical and spiritual goals fit into this framework as prayer and Bible reading can get sidelined into another item on the to-do list.”
I first learned about living by a rule at the monastery but found that followers of Christ have been creating personal rules individually and in community for years. St. Benedict himself, who wrote the most famous rule which orders the life of monastics around the world, summarized the rule as “simply a handbook to make the very radical demands of the gospel a practical reality in daily life.”
I’ve struggled to complete or live by a rule in the years since because it feels rigid in my ever-changing life. I would get a draft together of spiritual practices I wanted to pursue and ways I wanted to fix my life around anchor points that didn’t shift when my circumstances did. A few months into the year, just like with resolutions or goals, I would abandon the attempt, only to try again later. Continue Reading
Life is not a matter of creating a special name for ourselves, but of uncovering the name we have always had. – Richard Rohr
My sense of the self I try to project, the name I hope to make for myself, started to unravel one day when I was deep in my own thoughts, walking down Road Number 5 toward the market. I reached into the chest pocket of the bag where I kept my small bills, a habitual response to the rhythmic cry of “Allah, Allah” from the lady hunched over by the mosque entrance.
She smiled her crooked smile and started to say a prayer of blessing for me when I felt eyes on me besides hers. Four men sitting across the street, prayer mats neatly tucked under their arms, had their gaze intently fixed on me.
Their stares following my every move jarred me out of my daze and I looked up around at the bustling street. My mind started racing and I felt a flutter of worry. What did they see when they looked at me; what did my interaction with this woman who was begging communicate about me? What about all those times I was in too much of a hurry to stop and walked right by someone on the street? People were watching then too.
After that day I noticed it everywhere like that tiny loose thread on a sweater that turns into a hole once you start picking at it. I would often get in a rickshaw that would turn down our street before I said the directions; most people knew where the white family lived. I became acutely conscious of the assumptions people made about me and knew everyone was watching.
I also noticed my reactions to the attention —the way I could craft what they thought about me by the local clothes I chose to wear or the kind of places I frequented. I knew just how to act to be what people expected me to be in my various identities: non-profit worker (do-gooder), a follower of Christ (devout), family member (devoted), writer (deep), and on and on.
But there were only a handful of people who really knew all of me. It felt terribly lonely.
All of our lives are on display everywhere. From the people who interact with us at stores and on the street, to our online profiles, and in our own homes, everyone is making assumptions about us. And we are busy carefully molding our identities in their eyes by the choices we make and the things we say, by the parts of us we allow to be seen and the parts we keep hidden. We’re busy making a name for ourselves...
There’s something inside you waiting to unfurl. It is quietly growing beneath the surface. You can feel it gathering itself up, the momentum of its growth building. How it began is a mystery. What it will become is yet to be seen—even to you. But in its time, if you nurture it well, it will bloom.
“I understand now,” she said slowly. My mom sighed deeply and shook her head like she was trying to shake off the realization that had settled over her. “Seeing the way you interact with the people, seeing how you are here…” her voice trailed off as she gestured toward the old city street bustling locals and tourists entering shops. “You’re different somehow,” she finished after a pause. “You come alive,” she said as she placed her drink down on the table, every move deliberate as if the words pained her.
I wasn’t exposed to much diversity as a child in the middle-class Bible belt of suburban Georgia. I don’t know why this hunger had been churning and rumbling inside me or why it founds its place of rest and belonging the moment I stepped off a plane onto Asian soil.
I was twenty-one before I ever traveled outside the borders of America. It wasn’t for lack of trying before but my parents said no to that trip in high school and my college study abroad plans fell through. I couldn’t name this burning desire that had always been germinating inside of me. It longed to connect to something I couldn’t see—somewhere out there. As soon as I could pay my own way and had the chance, I was gone.
In the next ten years, I traveled to eight countries and lived in South Asia and the Middle East. I dragged my mom to Hindu temples and Bollywood movies. She came to watch my classical Indian dance performance and listened to me practice my broken Arabic with at the Lebanese restaurant where she warily tried shwarma. But she never connected with the cultures for which I had an insatiable appetite. I was growing in a direction that took me far away.
My first Bharata Natyam teacher explained my immediate aptitude for the complex Indian dance form as something I was born into. “You must have been a devadasi (Hindu temple dancer) in a past life.” My South Asian friends laugh sometimes at my ready acceptance of their culture—“Sister, you are more Bengali than we are.”
Fourteen years after my first steps outside of my home country, my mom and I sat together in a café tucked inside the ancient cobbled walls of the Arab Quarter of old Jerusalem. It was her first trip overseas in her adult life and my first chance to show her the world I loved. I knew the admission pained her, to say that she finally understood it, in her own way. It was a relinquishing of sorts—releasing me to something that threatened to take me (and my family) from her side...