It’s true what mother’s say about forgetting the pain of childbirth. My births are now seven and nine and a half years ago and I have to strain to remember the details. Giving birth is a moment we spend countless hours preparing for. It is the culmination of reading and birthing classes, showers, reordering our lives and homes, taking growing baby bump photos, and long months of waiting.
Then suddenly the moment has passed and the miracle and the pain all start fading into memory instantly. There’s a new life to care for. There’s not time to ruminate on the glories of childbirth. Just moments ago we screamed, “I can’t do this!” in agony but somehow, like millions of mothers before us, we did.
This time of year we talk a lot about birth. We read and sing about it, talk about it at our parties, reorder our lives and homes with decorations celebrating it, look at photos and miniatures of the place of the birth, and spend the long month of Advent waiting for the day of birth to arrive. Then suddenly the moment has passed and the miracle and the pain all start fading into memory instantly. We spend a month pregnant with the anticipation of the Savior’s imminent arrival.
There’s not time to ruminate on the glories of his actual coming. Life rages on and we forget the incarnation means God actually lived among us, that Jesus didn’t just go from angelic baby in a manger to resurrection. In between he cried out to the father in agony “I can’t do this!” and asked for the cup to pass from him. He lived in the pain with us. He still does.
Reading Lauren Winner’s Wearing God right before Advent this year had me thinking more literally than metaphorically about birth. I squirmed uncomfortably, as I am sure others do when they hear the graphic details of other’s birth stories, when I imagined Jesus’ birth truly for the first time in my life: “As the contractions pick up, Jesus would sense that he was being squeezed. His head helps stretch Mary’s cervix open.”
“Do I really want a God with a body?” Winner asks. “Would I prefer a God who lives as I try to live—mostly in my head?” It’s easier to hold Jesus at arm’s length, to live a sanitized version of Christmas. If he peacefully slipped into the world one silent night long ago, I can relegate him to the corners of my life, packed away with the manger scenes to be brought out once a year...
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?...
We like our warriors a little wounded, flawed. It makes for a more interesting story when the hero has to overcome their demons to win the day. Wonder Woman goes on despite her broken heart and disillusionment. Odysseus had to deal with his hubris to complete his journey. Paul continued his ministry, never rid of the thorn in his side.
For a writer, this is Storytelling 101. Your protagonist should have a blemish that makes him relatable. As our own stories unfold, though, we want to glide through the battle unscathed. We think that our wounds disqualify us. We can’t let anyone see our flaws or they wouldn’t believe we are competent.
I was fresh out of my first big battle with anxiety when I interviewed for a role that eventually took me to live overseas. I talked about my coping mechanisms and downplayed my pain. I didn’t understand anxiety’s grip on me then, the way the dark worry would wrap it’s tendrils around my heart over and over again like a monster lurking in the depths for its unsuspecting victim. But still I knew that I needed to gloss over these issues if I wanted to appear capable.
A decade later we have come a long way in our collective conversations of mental illness but still I feel apprehensive every time I tell a piece of my story. I have learned the art of smiling and saying “I’m okay” when my insides feel as if the sea beast is squeezing them until they turn to dust. I know all the typical responses that will be offered, down to the Scripture verses people will quote. I know those who will insist I pray harder or those who will suggest medicine at the first anxious thought.
In some recent quiet moments amidst the ongoing war, I had retreated to tend my wounds. I was listening to the prayers of others when I couldn’t find any words of my own. These words from an examen offered on the Pray As You Go app became a salve I daily applied to the hurt:
“You love me as I am. You touch my life with healing. You call me to bear fruit. I give my wounded self to you to be a channel of healing to others, to be a wounded healer with Christ who died, and rose, and comes again.”
I started to realize that my wounds don’t disqualify me and that my scars make me like the Wounded Healer I follow every day of my life.
When Jesus arrived in Israel, even those closest to him wanted him to be something he was not. His followers were expecting the Son of David to come in fury, to throw off the yoke of the Roman Empire. They wanted a warrior King; they got a suffering Savior. They put their hands in his wounds and then watched him ascend, victorious over death.
I started to realize that not only do my wounds not disqualify me, but also my scars make me distinctly able to be a healer to others who struggle as I do. When I started talking about my anxiety and depression there were whispers, however they were not the kind I expected. I was met with the quiet admissions of “me too.” Others trusted their stories to me and we realized our wounds looked the same...
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....
In the middle of that moment with the cold seeping into joint and marrow, in what felt like an endless night, we couldn’t imagine being warm ever again. We had been hiking down the mountainside all day. The expansive view of the Ozarks still fresh in our memories, we descended into the absolute opposite landscape. My family and eight others had been hiking for four days already. Bone weary, hungry, and exhausted we stood in front of the mouth of a wild cave with our hearts beating loudly in our ears.
We walked into absolute darkness and total silence, overwhelmed with the experiences of the past few days and all the emotions they stirred inside of us. That stillness was harshly broken the moment we stepped out of the cave to find a downpour had begun in the valley. We quickly got to work, easily falling into the teamwork we had built. Those best at building shelters set to work with the tarps, finding the few places of flat ground to stay for the night. As soon as one shelter was set up just high enough for us to crouch under, those who had gathered whatever wood they could began stacking it for those of us with knives. Quick but methodical, we shaved off the soaked bark until we reached something inside that was dry enough to burn.
Hours later we stood huddled near the fire, arms around each other as much for warmth as to keep ourselves standing. Together we’d succeeded in building a fire in the least ideal conditions. We devoured the food prepared over it, grateful for both the warmth and the sustenance the flames had provided. We coughed as smoke gathered in our tiny shelter. We alternated between keeping warm and turning our faces outward to gasp for clean air.
At three in the morning, we wept together as we recalled the past few days. We had done things we never imagined ourselves capable of. We had seen such darkness in ourselves as we grappled for certainty in the wilderness. We glimpsed such light in each other as we banded together as family to carry one another when we didn’t believe we could make it. We felt the deepest cold imaginable as the rushing waters flooded the valley where we stood. We felt the warmth of peace as we sang hymns together and reminded each other that God gave us the strength to press on. Whenever I stare into the flickering glow of a fire, I remember that night. I remember what it feels like to know I can overcome.
In the middle of this moment with the numbness of depression sapping the energy from joint and marrow, in what feels like an endless night, I can’t imagine ever being warm again. I have been stumbling through the day and finally have a quiet house to myself. The expansive view of a new adventure on the horizon fills my memory. My family had been working towards our international move for years. Bone weary, alone, and exhausted I have descended into culture shock that I never saw coming. You prepare for it. You read about it. But you don’t think it won’t shake your whole world. Then it does...
I'm at SheLoves Magazine today sharing how my experience in one valley mirrors another, how I know God gives us strength for whatever we are facing. Whatever challenge you face today, will you join me in choosing to believe God can overcome?
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...
"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....
People think life overseas is one big adventure. It’s not.
It’s still just life, lived out in an unfamiliar location. You quickly forget the exotic and get into mundane patterns of existence. The rains that flood the streets whenever there is a downpour aren’t interesting anymore, but just an obstacle that makes the kids’ bus two hours late coming home from school. You make the mistake once of trying to go out before Iftar and learn the hard way that you should stay home after four o’clock for the entire month of Ramadan to avoid the standstill traffic. You trudge down the same sidewalks and past the same half-erected buildings day in and day out because going much farther than your small section of the massive city drains the remaining energy that the sweltering heat hasn’t already taken from you.
Many days you stare at the same walls as you stay inside, too tired to battle it all. You look out over a sea of green you noticed as beautiful when you first came but the beauty is lost on you. You see the exotic looking banana trees but only to notice they have all grown down into cracking sidewalks, pushing their roots through the bricks constantly in need of repair. You may be able to see a small, luscious yard but it is behind the gated walls of one of the few verandas dotting the sea of high-rise apartments. Your territory has become concrete walls and barred windows, looking out over a section of the earth that feels very small despite its millions of inhabitants.
Maybe the view out your window looks very different than mine but I have the sneaking feeling you might have looked at it in the same way at some point. I have literally and figuratively felt trapped a lot in the last few months. Our tiny space inside the vast city we inhabit has felt like it is closing in on me. My legs long for spaces to stretch out, my heart yearns for a place to allow my children to run. My soul too longs for room, for wider prayers and for someone to hold space for me.
I’ve had the joy of a few intimate friendships that have deepened over time and which fueled my life and kept me going. In their absence, I feel like the grinch whose heart has shrunk a few sizes. My mood, energy level, and prayer life all are evidence of a heart and soul that feels only the restrictions on my life and doesn’t see the beauty anymore.
The counselor I have been talking to over email tells me I am right on schedule, a textbook case of culture shock and that these feelings are normal. They don’t feel normal. They feel stifling and overwhelming with a side of shame. I have always been a proponent of asking for help when you need it. But it still took me weeks after I received the counselors email address to actually reach out to her. Feeling completely exposed in front of a stranger is a new place for me, an uncomfortable and messy one. A necessary one...
The sound of the waves has faded into memory by now and the story of deliverance threatens to dissipate right along with it. Free from bondage, witnesses to miracles beyond belief, we thought we’d be settled by now. As our feet dig circles in the burning sand we understand why. We are still living in exile. When will we finally be home?
A year ago everything about our path was unknown. Jobs in one country had fallen through but we pursued opportunities in another, little known to us. We were selling our home without another yet in place. We didn’t know when or where we’d land. It was in the words of Exodus that I found courage, believing God would part the sea for us.
I recently sat down at the prompting of a spiritual director via an online retreat I attended. We were instructed to map the last twelve months of our lives. We were to mark the high and low points in our journey. That was easy enough to do. But then as part of this “peaks and valleys” exercise we attached a color to each experience, representing an emotion. In each moment were we angry, scared, excited, sad, happy, or tender towards God, others or ourselves?
My sketch looked like the plummeting hills of a roller coaster, the kind that makes your stomach plunge into your throat with each startling twist. The last marker, like the “you are here” on a map was a low point, a blot of black ink indicating fear. I realized as much about our lives is as uncertain as a year ago. We thought, like the Hebrews, that past the sea we would find freedom. We found more questions instead. Six months into life in a new country we ask: When will the language start to make sense? When will we stop feeling so lost, make a friend who really knows us, feel settled or fulfilled, have expectations met? How long will we stay? A thousand questions remain and home seems an unattainable dream.
In full color, all the tiny transitions of the last year became a map of my journey of fear and faith. We were prompted to ask, “When have I felt this way before?” as we looked at our experiences. The green of new life and excitement contrasted with the dark points of fear and I realized in both excitement and fear, joy and sadness, we’ve been living in the wilderness. Yet sometimes I found joy in the desert of the unknowing and others I retreated into despair. What was the difference?
We're all wandering, on our way somewhere and facing transitions and unexpected bumps along the way. With what lens do you view the journey? Through fear or with the eyes of faith? Join me at SheLoves today and share where you are in this journey...