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?...
After eight months of slowly dipping my feet into the churning sea of my adopted South Asian home’s culture, I’ve barely gotten past the surface. This country is much less diverse than America in terms of a melting pot of many nations. Our white faces draw crowds wherever we go because seeing foreigners is less common than in other more touristy locations in Asia. Yet, the diversity within this single culture is so staggering, I can’t navigate it well enough to place my finger on generalities.
One friend was married at age 13, a common practice in many villages. Another is still single nearing 30, her parents constantly trying to arrange her marriage. This girl covers her head while another wears jeans and a t-shirt. That woman wasn’t educated past third grade and can only write her name while yet another runs a school teaching the language to foreigners. One fasted the entire month of Ramadan and has been on the pilgrimage to Mecca. Another casually claims Islam but isn’t really observant. She has never left the small radius of her village. She is one of the few women in the capital city to drive a motorbike. She attended a small madrasa. She studied at the top international school in the country. All of these women are just as “normal” as the next, breaking the molds that try to contain them as women, as South Asian and as Muslim.
A co-worker has lived in this country for nearly a decade and has been outside of her passport country for 20 years. I thought surely she would have a good grasp of cultural norms and so I looked to her for guidance...
I feel the tension every time I open my computer and am bombarded with need on every side. My news feed is filled with pictures of families fleeing from rising waters and stories of refugees flooding into the no man's land between countries. There are a thousand different appeals for funds, for volunteers, for someone—anyone—to see the need and care.
As I dive into nonprofit work, I feel like I am swallowed in the sea of hurt before I even begin. I recently had the opportunity to engage with others working around the world in places where people are in great distress. We had time to talk together about our work and it was encouraging to be with others who understand what it’s like to be surrounded by difficult circumstances while clinging to the hope that change can happen. We also had the opportunity to share with the members of the large church about what life is like for those in our respective countries .
I argue I am a writer, not a speaker. I prefer telling a story in the relative obscurity of a coffee shop, safe behind my computer screen than to a live crowd with a lack of editing time. But as I’ve spoken more frequently about the new role I am taking on and the stories of the dire conditions in the country where we are moving, I’ve found it easier to get lost in the narrative as I tell it, to let my passion for the urgency take over. I see the eyes of the children who work instead of going to school, their hands becoming calloused as they roll cigarettes and lay brick. I feel the ache of the woman who has lost two children and been cast aside, shamed and penniless though barely out of her teens. I hurt because I have seen the faces behind the tragedies. To me, they aren’t just statistics of child labor and child marriage, or lives without hope. To me, they are children whose hands I have held in similar circumstances. They are the people I will call neighbor and friend.
But to those listening, these stories are tales of another faceless need. They are just another woe in a sea of sad sagas woven by all of us who are doing what we can to help...
Why should we amplify each other's stories? Why should we seek justice? No matter how small an act, listening and sharing the burdens of others matters. It changes us. It changes the world. Join me at SheLoves today and share how you are pressing on to sweep away apathy...
He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. – Psalm 147:3
How did I not see this before? I stared at what I had just written and it was like a neon sign was flashing the answer to a question I didn’t even realize I had been asking. I was sitting in a training for cross-cultural workers and I knew the value in preparing spiritually and emotionally for a big transition. But what I didn’t expect was to receive a new layer of healing to an old wound I had thought was closed.
The funny thing about moving forward is that it often requires looking back first. I am coming to realize how healing is a process, sometimes a lifelong one. I want easy solutions, problems solved. Wounds don’t work that way. Scar tissue forms. Old injuries can reappear.
I sat back on my heels, blinking away the tears. I was supposed to be there looking ahead and here I was suddenly plunged into the past. For the first time in a decade, I could see a little bit of why I had been wounded in the first place…
Our move back to the States from the Middle East ten years ago seemed pretty easy to explain—we returned to help family with some unexpected difficulties. But the decision to return wasn’t made without a piercing of my soul, a breaking of our dreams, a deep fissure created in my heart. I was wracked with anxiety and shut down when I learned the pain my family back home was going through. Life from 6,000 miles away became unbearable.
Guilt and years of wilderness walking followed. Was I too weak to stay? Was it my weakness that shut down a dream we’d worked so hard for? Life kept moving and it was easy to just bandage the hurt and move on.
God gave me the gift of walking with a friend a couple years ago through her post-traumatic return to the states and all the shame and litany of questions that came with it. As we cried and prayed together, layers of dead tissue fell away from my own heart. You didn’t fail. You did what God asked. The anxiety you felt in a traumatic situation is normal and He can use you still. I said the words to her while God whispered to my heart that those words that were true for her were true for me as well.
So, imagine my surprise as yet another layer was being peeled away, showing me the work wasn’t done yet. Finally heading back overseas, we went to this training trying to become aware of issues that might arise before we moved. We were given a long list of values, things that matter to us in our daily lives—things like adventure, ethics, independence, privacy, rest. We were supposed to rate how much those mattered to us, then say how well that area could be met in our current culture, and finally how likely we would be able to meet that need in our new culture...
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...
As the soaking rains seeped through our thick hiking socks, our boots felt heavier the longer we splashed through the South Missouri mud. We had been in the wilderness two days at this point but the stabbing cold made it feel much longer as we continued towards an unknown destination. We followed behind leaders who silently guided us, topographic map and compass in hand. As we slipped through the brush, not able to avoid the briars, we knew we weren't just off the trail. We were lost.
We had only gone a few feet off the trail, feet slipping in the mud, when we stopped as a team to discuss our best direction. Dark was quickly closing in and we weren't sure which ridge we were actually on. We needed to find somewhere to camp soon after hiking all day in the pouring rain. Packs that were already heavy grew in weight by the moment and none of us had dry clothes left. Empty stomachs were grumbling and our spirits were as drenched as the Ozark Trail we couldn't seem to find.
We backtracked up to the last place we saw the trail, decided to follow it until we could better determine where we were. One teammate stooped down to pull our anxious eight-year-old daughter close as we prayed. We asked God to stop the rain, to heal our littlest team members' aching backs and ankles, to continue to heal my husband, Lee, who had been unable to keep any food down in two days, to show us where to camp. We cried out—lost, wet, desperate.
We followed the trail until we saw a clearing, hopeful that it was the valley we were looking for but unsure we were willing to let down our guard yet and hope. As I tried to hold it together for the kids, my son's cries growing louder, another sound broke through my prayers for relief.
"I will not be shaken. I will not be shaken." Her tiny ankles were quaking and the rain wasn't subsiding. There was no end in sight. But as we walked through that clearing, my daughter was speaking the Truth out loud, holding onto His promises to be with her. Barely a whisper, she was clinging to them like they were her very life. As we walked we were memorizing Psalm 62:5-8 and the words we had repeated throughout the day were sinking deep into her heart: "He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I will not be shaken."
I wiped away my tears as I straightened my pack and kept walking. The two weakest and tiniest members of our group of twelve were teaching us what it meant to have the faith of a child, to cling to the truth and to trust that He will not let us down. As we rounded a corner in the forest trail, we heard the sounds of the river and the crunching of rocks under our feet. We turned our headlamps towards the sounds, sobs catching in our throats as we saw the fire ring on the beach. We were at our destination at last.
This is a tiny glimpse into the lessons I am still meditating on that I learned in the wilderness this Spring. We intentionally placed ourselves in a place of total unknown as we entered a two-week cross-cultural training that would help prepare us for the international move we've been working towards for over a year now. The first part of the training consisted of a multi-day (of undetermined length so that we were always wading through the unknown) period backpacking through the Ozarks with eight other people on similar journeys as us.
We were also unintentionally placed in another wilderness when our plans to move to one location in South Asia fell through and we were completely in limbo, trusting God to show us just the next step. The kids were talking about what they learned following our five days of hiking over 20 miles up mountains and across swift flowing rivers, building our shelters, building a fire and cooking over it, and so many more physically and emotionally stretching moments. Our daughter who saw God answer every prayer for healing, for the rain to stop, for guidance, said it made her want to pray more. "God provides even in the wilderness," she said. She won't understand the full impact of the seed that was planted in her little life for many years. But the courage her words of complete trust in His goodness are growing deeper places of faith in my own soul.
We are about out of the unknown. We have a new destination in South Asia and a goal to get there by fall. But we know there is still much wilderness ahead. We set out on the next leg of our trek knowing it is on solid ground that we step, declaring boldly, "we will not be shaken!"