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....
"Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing." - 1 Thessalonians 1:5, ESV.
“You’re so brave,” she said admiringly as she slipped the receipt across the counter. I fought back the urge to laugh or cry, I wasn’t sure which. She saw me one side of me—the foreigner in her country, hopping onto the public buses that merely slowed a bit before one needed to jump off onto the cracking curb. In her eyes, there stood this NGO-worker leaving the familiar to serve the people of her country. It was something she didn’t dream she could do and she said as much.
She didn’t see me thirty minutes earlier, sitting in my quiet apartment before my family began to stir, fighting back the fear that was churning in my stomach like yesterday’s spicy fish curry refusing to go down quietly. She didn’t witness this formerly proudly independent woman trying to talk herself into just opening that door to face the world outside. She didn't see that version of me.
When I lived in my home country I had a weekly ritual. I would slip out of the house under the still dark sky and escape to a coffee shop to write. I wouldn’t emerge until the sun was rising high in the sky and I had explored the depths of my soul on the page. I would return home to my family just beginning their days while I was buzzing with caffeine and passion. I felt powerful, invincible.
When the sunlight hit my face that morning I sat straight up in bed reaching for my phone to check the time. I forgot how early the dawn comes here and I saw it is not yet six. I eased out of bed and got ready quickly only to then sit there staring at that menacing door. I’d barely left my house all week, hemmed in by culture shock and depression, a kind of fear and anxiety that were as unexplainable as they were unpredictable. After eight months in this South Asian Mega-city, I felt breakable, broken....
I see them every day on the streets—the hungry. They stretch out trembling hands and plead for something to sustain them. A handout is not enough though. It may fill them for the day but they are back at the same bus stop the next morning, empty-handed and asking for more.
I’ve been that person for many days. I come to God with open hands and I ask for more of who He is, some feeling of His presence to carry me. I can’t count the number of books on prayer and contemplation I have read in the past few years. I begin reading with a hopeful heart. This is the one that will jumpstart my prayers,I think, that will tell me where my heart has gone astray in its connection to the giver of life. But I close the book in sadness. I don’t see any changes in myself.
The Furious Longing of God by Brennan Manning has been in my kindle queue for a while and I opened it on a whim last month. When I finished reading it I felt more like that pleading pauper than ever. I saw so much of myself in the flawed character of this alcoholic ex-priest, this man both attracted to and repelled by God. I knew his heart in the way he was never settled, always searching. But he had something in all his wandering that I didn’t—this ability to accepted God’s love fully and not get bogged down in his own failures and attempts to earn the love of the Father.
I wept with longing as I read: “Is your own personal prayer life characterized by the simplicity, childlike candor, boundless trust, and easy familiarity of a little one crawling up in a Daddy’s lap? An assured knowing that Daddy doesn’t care if the child falls asleep, starts playing with toys, or even starts chatting with little friends, because the daddy knows the child has essentially chosen to be with him for that moment?”
I yearn for this kind of trust in God’s affection for me. I want to believe that my attempts towards Him are enough, that in all my lack He is still infinitely pleased with me. I kept coming back to Manning’s words, devouring his autobiography in a few days and then launching into Dear Abba. I didn’t yet see any kind of shift in my prayers but I was so taken with this ragamuffin that I kept reading.
I was invited to a two-day retreat with a few other expat ladies in the South Asian city I’ve called home for nearly half a year. I longed for connection to someone in a place where loneliness is my daily companion. I came again with trembling and empty hands, not sure if there would be anything to fill them...
“Are you going to break up with me next?” she cried in frustration and anger. That anger should have been directed completely at me but it was also pointed at God.
I will never forget the look on my sister’s face when I told her I had broken up with my boyfriend. Disbelief mixed with pain and anger flashed in her eyes. I had caused that. Four years older than me, she was no longer in high school but we were in the same circles and shared a lot of friends. We shared a lot in common—except my faith in Jesus. There were other reasons this guy and I parting ways but my sister got around to asking me if it was because he didn’t share my faith and I admitted that was partly it.
It always came back to this with us. I pushed (hard). She pushed back (harder). Disagreeing never accomplished anything except for driving a wedge between two people who couldn’t see the world the same way. I thought I could argue her into believing. I think she would have stopped herself from believing just to spite me ... and she would have been right.
I cringe when I think back to the headstrong and arrogant youth that saw the world one way and expected to debate others into the Kingdom of God. I wish I could change this part of my history but what I can do is learn from it. Unfortunately, one thing I’ve learned is the fear of disagreeing altogether.
I spent so many years mending the damage from my ignorance and never wanting to harm another, especially in the name of the Jesus who never pushed His way into anyone’s life. I have taken the backseat of being a learner and I am more comfortable there.
I still have strong opinions. Just ask my small circle of friends close enough to hear my real political opinions. These are things I do not air publically. The thought of doing so recalls memories of that unkind girl and makes my heart beat faster than it should.
Enter social media and the fact that I am a writer in Christian circles—both of which these days means airing opinions and feelings, writing them out for all to see. I would say I picked the wrong vocation if I had actually picked it. Ask most writers and they’ll tell you it picked them, that they can’t help it. But that doesn’t negate the dread I feel about disagreement (especially about matters as deeply personal as faith and the way we express it)...
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...
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...
The sounds of bicycle bells, car horns, and rickshaw motors are my constant companion. They intermingle with the clanging of construction in a city that always seems to be expanding and the Call to Prayer five times a day reminds us that we are in an unfamiliar place. As foreign as these things feel, these aren’t the reasons I feel out of sorts.
It’s more that I don’t know how to dwell in this place: this not yet, the in between. You’d think I would be accustomed to it by now. We moved out of our house nearly three months ago and lived with friends. We settled into a borrowed home and a new routine just in time to pack up again. We’ve been living out of suitcases for a couple weeks now: first in my parent’s house in the States and now with friends in our new home country.
Everyone asks how we’re getting settled in here after a few days here. Settling isn’t the right word. Not yet. We are learning our surroundings and how to get around but we are still living as guests. Someone else is shopping and cooking for us, cleaning up after us. Once we get our own apartment then I think we’ll start to understand just how lost we are in this place. Already I feel like a baby, so dependent on others for translation of the language, for interpretation of a culture that is so deeply different than my own, for my food, and for our schedule.
As we got ready to move and I dealt with the unknown that lies ahead, I turned often to the words in Exodus. I identified with the Israelites as they stepped out on newly dry land, trusting God to keep the waves from crashing down upon them. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I now feel like those same wanderers as they stumbled around in the uncertainty of the wilderness.
Reading the books of Moses, we have the hindsight to know that the Hebrews would spend forty years wandering. But as they journeyed they lived with total uncertainty, never knowing when they would feel settled, would have a true home. I wonder if some made their home in the in-between while others stopped living while they waited for the Promised Land? Certainly, life went on there in the wilderness. Babies were born and others left this life behind. People married and worshipped and lived their lives all while they were in the not yet of their sojourning.
I think I am looking for an arrival but I want to look instead for how life happens in all the places we are...
I’m a sentimental person by nature. I love gifts that have a personal meaning, heirlooms, and reminders of the ones I love. Other than my wedding ring I don’t own any fancy jewelry but I do own pieces that are absolutely priceless to me like the small diamond necklace that belonged to my grandmother that I wore in my wedding or the ring that my sister got made for me out of a piece of Gram’s silverware.
I am however also a person who loves order and organization. When my mom, whom I learned my sentimentality from, gave me an envelope of childhood items she had kept for me, she was disgusted that I didn’t plan on keeping many of them. Sure that cute picture I drew in kindergarten is nice to show my kids but do I need every report card I ever got in school and every newspaper clipping from the times I made the honor roll?
My distaste for clutter and my love of memory often collide and I am conflicted in what truly matters enough to keep. So I am trying to find a balance with my own kids and the difficulty is compounded as we downsize to two suitcases apiece that we will take with us in our move to South Asia next month.
When we lived in the Middle East before we had children we packed as light as we could. I remember in moments of culture shock and homesickness how I longed for something to remind me of home. Maybe I am erring on the side of taking too much now as we look at paying for a couple extra bags but I don’t want to regret not having those items that connect us to home. That pillow made for our kids by the teacher who cared for them after school since birth, the dollhouse lovingly made by my childhood best friend for my own daughter (even though it weighs twenty pounds), those stuffed animals given as gifts that they cuddle with each night—all going.
I’ve tried to catalog memories in such a way that we will actually relive them one day. I have boxes full of old-school photo albums that I do actually revisit from time to time (You know, when we used to actually print photos and stick them in books? Many of mine are actually Polaroid’s, gasp!) We don’t have many photos of my husband’s childhood because most of his were lost years ago in a flood. I regret not having those every time someone says how much our son looks like his dad.
In the busyness of life I had gotten behind on making the computer-generated photo books I have made for each year of our children’s lives, so I spent hours in the last few weeks before our big move pouring over pictures from the last three years. I met my goal of getting the books done but those books were bulky and expensive and I didn’t want to risk losing them on the move, so straight into storage they went. Knowing how much the faces of the people we love would bring comfort, I set out to make a smaller book of family and friends to take with us.
I was surprised at the pictures that gripped my heart and I felt like I needed to include...
I know what it must feel like to be a ghost. I am haunting the life I used to live but haven’t moved on yet, hanging out on the fringes of what I once called mine. I watch everyone around me go about their days as they always have but I am on the outside looking in. I ache to be seen but I also know my presence brings up all kinds of hurt, so I remain in the wings. Yes, I know what it must feel like to be but a shadow, haunting your own life. This is life in transition.
Have you ever felt it before? Maybe you moved from the place you long called home or left your church, had an illness that separated you from others, or lost your job while others went on with life as usual?
We are moving to South Asia in less than two months. Our house is sold and our belongings are stored. I watched someone take over my job of six years as I stepped aside, getting the kids ready for uprooting their lives. Their little hearts are unfazed, it seems, as they adjust well while I feel more invisible every day. Next week we sell our car, the last big thing that links us to life in the United States. We will drive in a borrowed car as we live in a borrowed house, feeling like we are borrowing a life that isn’t ours anymore.
I am glad I have this “in-between” time in our move to prepare me for the loneliness I know is coming living 8500 miles from what has been home for most of my life. I feel like I am building up callouses now for the big hurt that is to come. But I also am wounded in another way, the conviction in my heart that is God saying “who else have you made to feel this way in the past? Who are you shutting out even now?”
Faces float to the surface of my memory as I try to push them back under. There’s the friend who encouraged me when my whole life was changing with a move, a new job, a second baby. I sat daily on her couch and we laughed and cried together. We had a fellowship I was sure would withstand the miles when she moved away. We haven’t talked in years. There’s the church small group I was a part of when all this transition happened and we were so busy we couldn’t make it to group but a couple times in a year and we just drifted away from budding relationships. I miss them and wonder how they are doing but it feels like it’s been too long to reach out now.
Relationships ebb and flow. Few last forever, I know that. Out of high school, I have one friendship that has stood the test of time and from college two real friends remain. I read the findings of a psychological study recently that concluded most friendships last no longer than seven years as people change and move on with their lives. But there are those moments when it feels like every relationship you have is changing or all have fallen away. Only loneliness remains and it gets you thinking about how we were designed for real fellowship and how empty we are without it...