I noticed the Krishnachura trees in early Spring. It was hard not to notice the fiery blossoms that colored the streets. Green is not hard to come by in this country. The reason the background of the flag is green is that this land of many rivers has an abundance of the color in its countless river deltas and rice fields. But the vibrant blooms of these trees is quite unique. They reminded me of the Bradford Pears of my beloved Georgia home. Like the Bradford Pear trees, I noticed this tree was full of blossoms for a short time and then the petals became a shower of red bursting forth in the wind and trickling down to the street below. I asked around and discovered the name of this tropic tree and enjoyed its blooms for a short while.
For months my heart has been downcast and so have my eyes. As my spirit fell low, my gaze followed. My walking can only be called trudging for the past few months. It wasn't my surroundings that brought the pain. I am no stranger to these feelings of anxiety. But in the midst of a downward spiral, I stopped seeing any beauty around me. The heat bearing down on me, the crowds pressing in, the broken sidewalks occupying my vision—I watched my feet going places I didn't want to be.
Last week I walked under the Krishnachura tree that looms overhead every time I walk to the market. I walk under it often but haven't really seen it in months. I felt a rare gentle breeze and I stopped to notice it again. Its red blooms have long since fallen off but it is still one of the most beautiful trees I've ever seen. It shades the entire street under tiny leaves that weave together to make a tapestry of color above me. In that breeze and in those leaves I felt the tingling tendrils of something else wrapping around my heart—joy. It was as if God was saying, "Hang on. It's coming like the cooler weather" (that is still three months off here). It was in those moments of the walk, when I looked up again, that I decided to do what I could to find my way back to joy step by step.
It is easy for me to only see concrete in this city. We are a good thirty-minute drive by public transportation to a decent stretch of land on which to play. I miss walks and playgrounds and riding bikes. And on hard days all I can see is overcrowded and unsafe roads that my kids can't play on. But on a good day, on a day in which I decide to look for it, I see green everywhere. In this city of 12 million people scrambling for any patch of land they can get and buildings going up on almost every square inch of it, there is still green everywhere. It is creeping through the sidewalks and up the side of buildings, hanging over verandas, and shading the streets. All this green is telling me that life finds a way no matter the surroundings, the difficult circumstances. Joy can find a way too. So today I'm looking up.
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It's such a small thing; it couldn't possibly have that big of an impact. It's just like the small bud of a flower, the ones we watch developing daily on the plants that grow in the nursery right outside the window of our fifth-floor flat. It's such a small thing—that negative thought. That complaint, that fleeting feeling of guilt or shame, that sideglance at the thing someone has done to annoy me.
But here's the truth about small things: They always grow. I find myself constantly admiring the vibrant pink tendrils of the bougainvilleas all over the city, which start small but take over whole verandas and sides of buildings. My thoughts have been doing the same thing lately. I started to notice it early in the month when my attitude turned sour and my insides felt raw. I was on the edge of tears whenever anyone said a word to me and couldn't understand why.
The next day I kept my mobile phone on me throughout the day and typed a quick sentence every few minutes. Wherever I felt my thoughts taking me, I took note of it. Reading over them at the end of the day, I felt as if I was beating my way through an overgrown path where thistles scraped at me and branches clawed at my skin. One negative bud had turned into a full-grown thought-life that brought nothing but death.
I was shocked at what I found when I took the time to slow down and look inside. Lies had woven themselves around my heart and crowded out the truth and joy of God's Word. Transitions are hard and painful things, to be sure. Five months into life in South Asia we are deep in the feelings of inadequacy and failure, of uncertainty and culture-shock. But I was letting all of those hard feelings define me and I knew it had to stop or they were going to choke the life out of me.
So even though it kind of felt like that old recurring dream of showing up in front of your entire class naked, I typed up a call for help on facebook. I brought the dark thoughts of failure and fear I was having into the light for all to see. I went to bed while most of my friends and family on the other side of the world were waking, into a deep sleep that never feels like enough these days. I woke with a vulnerability hangover. Ugh, should I have said those things? I groggily unlocked my phone and the tears that had threatened for weeks came tumbling down and continued throughout the day as the comments poured in. Over 40 friends in 6 different countries responded with messages of support, with prayers and encouragement, with "I've been there" and "Thank you for your honesty."
I'd love to say that one act of confession freed me from the shame that has wrapped itself so fully around my heart but it is a daily battle, a choice to speak the truth into the darkness and a discipline to find thankfulness in the midst of the monotony and loneliness that mark early expat life.
There's a simple exercise mentioned by Barbara Brown Taylor in her memoir Leaving Church and made popular again recently by Anne Bogel of Modern Mrs. Darcy who says: "Even though most of us can easily articulate what’s killing us, few of us pay attention to what’s giving us life." Taylor asks the question: What is saving your life right now?
In the midst of countless little deaths every day (the convenience of driving a car or easily getting around a city, the access to outdoor space to play, the access to friends and family, the freedom to write in a busy season of language school), I have to stop living in the grief of it all and finding little joys, things that are giving me life, saving my life.
This week it's been as simple as taking a few minutes to have cha at a roadside stand with friends from language school, choosing to not study for a night and watch a couple hours of TV with my husband instead, finishing that Easter watercolor so that there was something of the season in our home, listening to Elevation Worship's Do It Again on a loop, and making myself get out of the house and go to a church service in the local language. I didn't understand many words but I raised my hands to the beautiful beating of the drum and the chaotic and heavenly sound of a roomful of voices lifted in prayer all at the same time. I felt closer to God at that moment than if I'd known every word that had been uttered that night. It was not just choosing to do those things but stopping to notice them, to relish in them and thank God for them.
Today when the darkness feels like it is choking out the life that is but a tiny seedling, I have to make the choice again and again. Will I let this hope be smothered or beat back the darkness? Will I choose to let joy grow?
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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?
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They say it is winter now but this doesn’t feel like anything I’ve ever known of winter. While others tug their scarves tightly around them the sweat still pools where my purse hits my shoulder. Maybe I’ll get accustomed to the tropical air before the real heat comes early next year. Getting used to the weather is one of the many things I seem to be waiting for these days, just weeks into life in this new country.
I’ve been pondering and praying about what it means to wait so much this year as we prepared to move and were confronted with delays and changes in our plans. When the wheels touched down on the tarmac in South Asia I thought much of our waiting had come to an end. I had no idea just how wrong I was.
I kick around these thoughts just like the stones that my feet break loose as I walk down the uneven path towards the market. I’ve walked this road a few times before but haven’t really been able to observe it. I’ve been watching the rickshaws I need to dodge, jumping as a horn alerts me to the presence of a car behind me. My eyes have been on my kids, making sure they dodge the stray dogs and keep away from the place where the sidewalk has a gaping hole. I’ve been negotiating every step. Today is my first day to the market by myself and I am finally able to slow down and relax into the walk, my thoughts slowing with me.
I navigate the aisles of products I don’t recognize, waiting to feel comfortable here. I pick up something to check the price and sigh. I don’t know how to read the labels yet so I hope this brand of powdered milk is okay. I wonder how long before I don’t feel like a toddler in this place – unable to understand simple words or cultural cues. I can’t grab as much as I need because I can only cart so much back down the dusty street on my own. I’ll wait to come back another time for that ironing board that’s a little too heavy. What’s a few more days with wrinkled clothes when we’ve been living out of a suitcase for months?
As I head back home with too-full bags bouncing off my hips, I take a moment to bask in my little victory. I made it to the store on my own and actually managed to find all the items I needed to cook dinner. My short-lived celebration fades as something inside whispers, “it’s a tiny step towards feeling at home somewhere new.” I know that voice well.
It’s the voice that reminds me I’m always waiting for something, never can seem to feel settled...