Perched on the balcony, like the Black and White Doel¹ that serenaded me from the windowsill in the spring, I watched over my little corner of the world. In the most densely populated city on earth, that one little intersection of Road Six and Safwan Road felt like a microcosm of humanity itself.
I would sit there with a steaming cup of coffee in my hand though the tropical morning humidity already made streams of sweat trickle down my back. The city had been awake for hours already—really it never slept at all. Through the night my family would be serenaded by the barking street dogs and dinging bicycle rickshaw bells. The construction trucks arrived in the early morning hours to dump more rebar and brick in the lot next to us for the ever-growing high rises.
Bangladesh, built on the delta that contains over 700 rivers, is a stunning display of God’s workmanship. Even in the concrete and brick mega-city, our flat was surrounded by green. Palms lined the streets, heavy jackfruit pulled branches down around us, and the bright red Krishnachura blooms fell to the ground like the snow the city will never experience. Humanity has complicated that beauty as more people pour into the city, away from the rising floodwaters, the ebb of jobs, and increasing poverty in the villages. When most people talk to me about the city I love, this is what they focus on.
The pollution that blankets the city in the winter and causes pounding headaches, the trash that lines the streets, and the steady protests that clog traffic makes Dhaka a less than desirable location for most. When we moved back to the U.S. I heard it everywhere: “Aren’t you so glad to be out of that place? It must have been so hard. I would never want to go there.” Every time someone says something like this, I can feel tears of defensiveness sting my eyes. In my mind, I still go back there often to that intersection. My heart swells with love for the beauty I found there, amidst the mess. Because of the mess. Because of the people.
That coffee in hand, for a few quiet moments I would watch the people, so many of them. The chatter of Bangla rising from the street never stopped as people called for rickshaws, yelled at friends heading to the University, or kids ran off to the English primary school down the street—its walls painted brightly with cartoon characters.
From where I stood I could peer directly into the nursery below, as early morning shoppers chose from orange marigolds and buckets of pink bougainvilleas to take home and grow on their balconies. Depending on the season I could see the children inside the small slum-house across from the nursery chasing chickens or running past the cow tied outside the gate. The day workers cleared their throats as they ascended the pile of red dust made from smashed bricks that they would add to the concrete mixer.
I would smile and wave at the nuns, their white shoes shuffling down the cracked street as they walked to the Christian counseling center next to the school. I wanted to smile at the men on their way home from morning prayers at the mosque but their white Topi-clad² heads never looked up at me, hurrying on into the day. The Ayah³ in the villa next to us would meet my gaze, though, as she pulled tight sheets over the rooftop clotheslines. I wondered what she saw when she looked at me. We were some of the only white faces visible in this part of town, far from the richer, diplomatic area in which a lot of foreigners chose to live. She would nod as she returned to her work.
As the heat closed in around me, I would leave the sounds of the city behind and return to the work awaiting me. Soon I would head down to the non-profit office just a couple floors below to write out stories about these people I loved. I would weed through reports from our village schools and news from our teams in the Rohingya refugee camps in the south of the country. I would stumble through accounts of other people’s lives, trying to figure out how to communicate to donors just how important their support was to the education and economic development of people they would never meet. I would pray that I could somehow honor the stories of people, let their own voices come through my words.
Today, I sit here two years after our return to the U.S. and twenty years to the day from the moment I felt God telling me to turn to love when so many around me were learning to hate. The day after the attacks of September 11, 2001 as I sat in an Arabic college class among my Middle Eastern classmates weeping that their religion had been turned into a weapon of terror, my heart shattered. It has been breaking ever since for the divisions we invent out of fear—the blinders we erect that keep us from seeing the glorious richness of what others have to offer us....
My mind struggles to place this feeling—this breathlessness, the sensation of reaching for something secure. I lie in bed trying to quiet my thoughts, forcing my chest to rise and fall in regular, timed breaths. I think over all there is to do and all I have left undone today. I fret over all the plans that feel over my head. I imagine water rising around me. A memory plays at the edges of my consciousness and I suddenly know when I felt this way, just a few weeks before.
My brave little girl had made the move from tentative wave jumper to full-blown ocean lover this summer. We vacation yearly at the same beloved beach and we loved being back, days spent covered in salt and sand.
She would beg me to take her, boogie-board in tow, far out to where the waves were breaking. Their white peaks would tease us, our hearts racing as they neared. Most often they would dissipate before getting to us. But once in a while, the foamy rushing water would tower over our heads and carry us in, sometimes under.
The water was up to her shoulders but not too high for me. I wanted to see the great waves the way she saw them, so when she was occupied with friends I broke away to venture farther out into the chilly, murky Atlantic. I swam until my feet dangled and my head bobbed up and down with each move of the water. I couldn’t see another person near. There was only water and sky in every direction. Completely at the mercy of the sea, completely caught up in it.
For a moment I marveled at the beauty of it. There is nothing I love more than the tranquil sound of waves lapping against the shore, the vastness of it all. I felt my smallness so keenly in that moment, knew my place in the world. A tiny spec in the seemingly endless ocean—I marveled at the Creator of all this.
How could He care for this one tiny life in the world where so much mattered more? This is what I wanted, to know my place and feel the weight of His care for me despite my smallness.
But then, feeling the utter lack of control I had as the undertow began to tug at me, I felt the panic rising up in my chest. As much as I love the ocean, I fear it equally. I’ve never been a strong swimmer. Not another soul in sight and the shore growing farther away, I fought my breath coming in gasps. The same sea that evokes such peaceful imagery can become a beast without warning. That vastness could so easily swallow me whole.
I closed my eyes and swarm hard until my feet could find the soft sand squishing between my toes, the comforting feeling of control returning.
Lying in my bed, my little wave jumper’s head curled up under my chin, I remember the feeling of the sea all around me. I remember the panic, but also the awe. All my worries and attempts at control from the day melt away. I unclench my fists and try to let all my fears tumble from my hands. Continue Reading