Tag Archives: Community Center

Christmas Songs

Hazy and muddled, specific and definite.  My memories patch together like an heirloom quilt in reverse.  They remain clear and crisp in the places that are held the most frequently.  They fade in the places that are not often touched.

Perhaps the vagueness of this one memory comes from its being annually repeated, in some form, every Christmas that we are all together.  My family, in the living room, singing Christmas carols.

But one year was different— when, I don’t remember, but I and all of my siblings still shared an address; the nieces and nephews and novels to which they would give birth were yet unknown; and my fingers remembered how to coax a song from the yellowed, out-of-tune piano in the hallway.

My brother still played guitar often.  My sister could brush up her flute.  The youngest had just started learning the violin.

This nameless Christmas saw four siblings rallied over a song, and its two audience members— Mom and Dad— awed by the harmony, as we performed our version of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

— 

They have no idea what I am saying.  

I’m at an end-of-the-year celebration for the dozen or so ladies who work at our community center, to make jewelry and household items from recycled materials.

Their small business has gone through big changes in the past 12 months.  In the midst of all of it, they have rallied to fill challenging bulk sales orders, started doing fitness and English classes together a couple of times a week, and held “family” gatherings every few weeks to increase their sense of harmony and identity.  Meals cooked with love in the kitchen of the community center.  A road trip to a historical site and the spot with the best bakery for a particular dessert.  A piñata— looking like a pinterest fail, made by me, but still a hit— at a “Mexican Night.”

IMG_8768For the end-of-year event, they have made the national dish, the one that is synonymous in this region with celebration.  They pose with the flowers and bonus envelopes that they receive from their director, like graduates getting a certificate.  Pictures and piles of food seem to be the basic party requirements.

IMG_8767Then someone tells them I know Christmas carols.  I sing O Come All Ye Faithful, and Joy to the World.  I think, They have no idea what I’m saying, but release the words over them, to the rhythm of my guitar: “He comes to make His blessings flow, far as the curse is found…”  “Come and behold Him… O come, let us adore Him.”

O come, O come, Emmanuel.

This time we found someone to sing in Arabic.  She has yet to be accepted on Arabs Got Talent, but she would have all our votes; we ask her to sing for the Christmas party of our community center’s wellness program.  A combination of American and Arab teachers lead those classes, and usually have more people wanting to attend than they can enroll.  Three times a week the women gather for aerobics, basic yoga, and bellydancing— or some combination of these— along with a post-workout community and coffee time in the center’s upstairs sitting room.

On the morning of the party, we fill the top floor of a restaurant, 50 local women and a handful of ajanib, foreigners.  “May you be well every year,” they say as they enter, kissing my cheeks.  It’s the general blessing for every holiday, but several add “Merry Christmas” with a smile, as if to communicate that their knowing this phrase honors my language and my faith— though they are not their own.

IMG_8794Our local singer takes her place in the front; I stand next to her, guitar in hand.  I try to follow the unfamiliar cadence of Arabic through renditions of Jingle Bells and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.  Then she sings Silent Night in her language, and stretches the microphone to me so I can sing it in mine. I look at a room full of women wearing headscarves, at the mosque outside the giant picture windows, at the mountains beyond that.

I sing, “All is calm, all is bright.”

My heart says: O come, O come, Emmanuel.

I am a substitute for the center’s adult English classes.  But several of the students have been very receptive, and several of my friends are teachers, so I decide to attend their graduation.

Certain semesters of English seem to foster a higher degree of camaraderie; this group was particularly close.  After graduation, when most of the selfies had been taken and students were starting to return to their homes, a young woman takes me and another female teacher by our hands.  “We need you upstairs,” she says.  She hurries us past the second floor, with its classrooms, to the third-floor gym.

Music pours from the speakers.  A group of female students stands in a circle, hips and feet and fingers twirling in Arabic-style dance.  We laugh and jump in, to the approval of the students, who twine their fingers with ours.

We hand them sequin-covered hip scarves from a basket.  The lead dancer straps a yellow one around herself, mauve around me, blue around the other foreign teacher.  But none of us can make the imitation gold coins jingle like she does. This woman’s face is unfamiliar to me; later I learn that I know her, but did not recognize her because I usually see her in mixed-gender situations, when she is wearing a niqab— a head covering that only shows her eyes.

We dance until it is time for the building to close.  The women descend to the first floor, we kiss their cheeks, and they disperse into dark streets.  A young Arab woman, who is visiting the center for the first time, tells me, “It is like a family.”  Desire of nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind.

O come, O come, Emmanuel.

Sixty of the Young Leaders boys are gathered in the gym, our last session of this youth mentoring program for the semester.  How are you different than when you started this program in May?  What did you enjoy?  What did you learn? I ask.

Their answers make my heart swell.  I tell them, though, that none of it matters.  Nothing of what you learned this semester matters.  Unless you use it when you are not at the center. Then it matters.  

And I believe that it does.

We descend to the first floor.  Someone puts candles in a big pan of cheesy, sweet kanafeh, to honor one teacher’s birthday.  They begin to sing; first, “Happy Birthday” in English, but then the song somehow changes to a clapping, table drumming, tremendously loud chanting of songs probably written before their grandfathers were boys.  Some of them don’t stop, even when the usual time for them to go home arrives.  They sing with one voice.

I sit behind the counter and watch.  I remember the awkward silence before their first class.  Their nervous interviews when they came to apply for the program.  The fights and insults that teachers had to intervene in, some just weeks before.  The looks on the faces that have changed.  The looks on the faces that haven’t.

And I keep a song close in my heart.  Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.

The words stay crisp and clear, remembered often, in the dark and in the light.

Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel

Has come to thee…

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In the Middle of the Art

This was unexpected.  I had arrived in Zurich the day before, with plans to spend two days roaming this city.  En route to a company leadership training in Germany, it was the first time in months that I had left my sandy home town.  I was greedy for some new scenery.

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Zurich at night

A dragon guarded the entrance to my first destination.  The castle-style Swiss National Museum was attended by a German-speaking curator, whose eyes surveyed visitors as if he knew that most would snap iPhone selfies and spend hours ogling his treasures, but have no idea of their real value.  After he had accepted the tribute of a ticket and allowed me to proceed, the heavy double doors opened slowly, automatically, to an enormous room, full of brightly lit display cases and dark red walls.

Prominently displayed in the center were four donkeys.  

An unexpressive Jesus sat stiffly on each one.  The figures seemed to be composed of simple wood and paint; their angles were unrealistic, ugly.

They were hauled through the streets in regular processions for celebrations, hundreds of years ago, a plaque informed me.  But why bother to save four that looked so similar?  And why give something that did not seem too valuable such an exhibition?  I did not understand.

An alarm sounded from somewhere in the room.  Another tourist and I eyed each other with the question, “Is this something we should take seriously?”

The Paris attacks had occurred less than twelve hours before.

The sound— perhaps a falsely triggered security or fire alarm— faded, and I thought again of the King on a donkey.  Of His peaceful entrance, subversively surprising a city in turbulence that was seeking a political savior.  Perhaps we did need all four to help us remember.

Later I visited an art museum, whose features included several moods of Van Gogh; a giant, disheveled Campbell’s Soup can from Warhol; a handful of powerful sculptures from Rodin, stylized Renaissance paintings of love and spirituality; and immense panels from Monet.

My sister and I always look for Monet when we explore— from our first art experience together at a little museum in Rhode Island, to the Met in New York, to the places we were privileged to see in Paris.  One in particular, the Musée de l’Orangerie, features waterlily paintings that cover entire walls; the viewer is encircled by them, immersed in their colors.  The story is that Monet donated this exhibit to the people of Paris, to help heal their souls after the terrible experience of World War I.

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Claude Monet, Seerosenteich mit Iris — Kuntshaus, Zurich

I remembered them as I sat alone before the massive irises and lilies in Zurich’s museum.  A few days later, an artist would host some of our meetings in South Germany’s Art Factory, an abandoned roof tile factory turned into a haven for travelers and artists.  “I have heard it said that ‘Art is God’s secret weapon…,’” she told me.  “It makes sense.  No one would suspect; when things are very dark, art brings hope, it heals, it shows beauty.”

Between museums, I visited Fraumunster Cathedral, with stained glass windows stunning in size and color.  They fell short, to me, of capturing the greatest moments in the story of Jesus.  But the riotous color reflected the infinitude and intimacy of the moments when Christ took on flesh, and awakened my heart to long for more than the representation… for the real.  Each piece of art I saw that day expressed longing, love, or lust from the artists; their disillusionment, depression, and desires to gain peace; their defiance or acceptance of their societies; their fears, pains, hopes, joys.  Maybe the reflection of what is real, and the stirring of longing for more, were the point.

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View of Fraumunster Cathedral in Zurich, from the tower of Grossmunster Cathedral

After I had admired the windows, I crossed the street to Grossmunster Cathedral.  I was expecting less there; I had been captured by the story of Katharina von Zimmern, Fraumunster’s last abbess, who knew both how to lead and how to let go of power in an era where few women were allowed to do the former, and few human beings knew how to do the latter.  Tourists milled around the Grossmunster sanctuary; sound technicians were setting up for a sacred music concert the next day.  I walked up the side and found a postcard, printed in five languages.  The words:

Almighty God,

unto whom all hearts be open,

all desires known,

and from whom no secrets are hid:

cleanse the thoughts of our hearts

by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit,

that we may perfectly love thee,

and worthily magnify thy holy Name,

through Christ our Lord.  Amen.

—Book of Common Prayer

The front stage was marked, “Please no conversation here.  Listen to the silence.”

I sat and listened.  A Renaissance painting seen earlier had portrayed Jesus’ baptism with everyday life happening around Him, and against the backdrop of European mountains.  I chuckled at the inaccuracy at first, remembering the “real” wilderness of the baptism site.  Perhaps the artist did not know any better.

But it is more likely that he did, and still had in mind something deeper, more vivid and more real.  The holiest moments can take place right in the middle of life as it usually goes.

All the cathedrals, all the great works of art, they are not the keepers of silence, or beauty, or hope.

They are simply places that we can remember.

Thanksgiving week.  The Young Leaders girls learn how to bob for apples.  Their laughter echoes in our community center; their head scarves are soaked.  I take a break from mixing biscuits and mashing potatoes the next afternoon, as the sun is setting in stunning color, to go to visit the Young Leaders boys; the moon, stunning in size, is rising when I go home.

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Hand turkeys from Young Leaders– part of learning about Thanksgiving in the United States 🙂

The teachers bring their families later that night, an Arab/American Thanksgiving.  Our table is filled with all the traditional fixings, give or take (a two-day turkey search had ended with chicken; and someone brought FullSizeRenderhummus to go with our glazed carrots and green beans). Strong Arabic coffee and sweet tea
accompany homemade aple crisp, blackberry pie, and kanafeh, a local cheese and honey desert.  Someone starts to sing, first in Arabic, later in English; others share stories over dishes in the kitchen.

And my heart is full thanksgiving, from this cathedral, amidst the art.

 

Drunken Drivers, Engagements, & Other Misunderstandings

He honked the horn of the bus.  I ignored him, and opened the trunk of my car.

He smirked, gestured, and beeped a second time.

I hoped he wasn’t trying to get my attention.  For women in this part of the world, it’s not unusual to receive some level of rudeness from random guys; but this bus driver was with the Young Leaders group that day.

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Team building games w/ Young Leaders, by the sea

Three busloads of teenage boys, five local teachers, and I had come to the beach that morning for a field trip.  The students were finishing the last of their “team building” games, just a few minutes behind schedule.  Earlier that morning, they had combed the beach for sea glass, which women who are employed at the community center would later transform into jewelry.

I packed the glass in the trunk of my car, and the bus driver beeped again.  “Hurry up!” he yelled in Arabic.  “We’re waiting.  Let’s get going!”  His abruptness led the thought to flash across my mind: Is he intoxicated?

Out loud, I apologized, and told him I would get the boys moving onto the buses.  Given that drinking was against his religion, it was 11:00 a.m., and he was a bus driver, I dismissed my previous thought as preposterous.  I told Ramsey, one of our Young Leaders teachers, that our bus driver wanted us to hurry up.  The boys got into the buses while Ramsey went to see what the rush was about.

He came back to talk to me, keeping his voice low.  “He’s drunk.”

I thought I heard wrong.  I asked him to repeat himself.

“He’s drunk.  Either that, or he’s wearing this bad-smelling cologne that’s common in his home city.”

We needed to figure out, quickly, if this guy was under the influence, endangering students– in which case my instinct was to pull him out of the bus, leave him in the blazing sun on the beach, and replace him behind the wheel with one of our trusted teachers– or if he just had little social aptitude and a poor choice of cologne.

What to do, with so much at stake?  And with so much, from hometown colognes to cultural methods of confrontation, beyond my knowledge?

We came up with a plan, but all I could think about on the drive home was, How do I make sure this vulnerable scenario never. happens. again?

Last week, my best friend from this city, Sammi, was telling me again what she hoped God would provide in her future husband, though she had no current candidates.  She is helping me with my Arabic, and our “studying” often turns into conversations about heart and soul stuff.

The following day a family who had heard of her came to visit– unexpectedly.  By the end of the evening, they had asked her to marry their son.  The two met that night and signed the marriage contract the next morning.

I understand that this story is normal in this country.  I have met many ladies here who began their marriages this way. And when they talk about their relationships, my limited Arabic is enough to understand that a few are delighted, and others are depressed. I have even had well-meaning friends try to set me up like this, with my blind date Mohammad

But on a deeper level, when I saw my close friend Sammi, joining her hands and connecting her life with this almost-stranger, I knew I didn’t understand.

When we lead, when we love, or even when we simply talk, or connect with one another, the risk is present: of not understanding.  Or, what is an even less appealing option to some of us: of not being understood.

Sometimes the stakes are low.  I recently tried to ask one Young Leaders teacher, in Arabic, Do you know how to cook?  It came out, Do you know how to get engaged?   

Sometimes the stakes are higher.  A bus full of students.  A friend who needs support even if I can’t understand the road she is traveling.

When the stakes are raised, but the guarantee that I will understand and be understood is not there, my tendency is to reduce risk factors as much as I possibly can, and try to increase safety.  I put my hands in fighting stance, or attempt to put distance between what I love and what I feel is a threat.

But, in fight or in flight, many times I’m also guarded against good things.  Deepening relationships.  New experiences.  Trust.

After Sammi told me her news, I went to Dana, my wise friend from this city, for help in wrapping my mind around their quick commitment.  What’s the best way for me to support her?  I asked.  Dana asked if there would be an engagement party.

Next week.

She smiled, knowingly.  The best way, though I don’t fully understand what happened previously or know will take place in the future, to be fully present and engaged?

“Just dance.  Just show up, and dance.”

***Song to this story is Counting On, by John Mark McMillan.

He Sees

Soundlessly, she sat beside us, crying as her sister Sammi told her tale.  “A European couple offered me a job nannying their children,” she said.  “But then they decided that they want someone else, someone who does not wear a headscarf.”

Sammi spoke in a matter-of-fact voice, like the entire affair was of no consequence.  However, we all knew that this had been the kind of opportunity that does not come often– and that the reason it was rescinded appeared to be flat-out discrimination.  My mouth fell open and then filled with words like that’s horrible and they have no idea what an amazing person they are missing.  Sammi’s sister’s eyes simply filled with silent tears.

Sammi shook her head.  “Don’t cry,” she commanded in English, as if using their second language would make them both feel stronger.  Her sister had completed Young Leaders before I arrived in the Middle East; through that program, they had connected with our community center, and eventually I had met them and they had accepted me into their family.

Now 18 years old, this youngest sister dreams of skydiving, passing her final exams for high school next month, and working toward a psychology degree.  Her compassion is the size of Saudi Arabia, and more precious than all the oil it contains.

I stopped speaking.  I wrapped my arms around her and prayed inside that God would wrap His arms around her gentle soul.

Dana knows what it is like to experience deep suffering.  And great joy.  And pain, brokenness, loyalty, and love.  She is known as a woman of wisdom, and is the giver of some of the best hugs I have received while in the Middle East.

I came to work late one day– in the middle of a busy couple of months, when the weekends were full of Young Leaders events and the days seemed long– to good-natured joking from some of my coworkers.  “You should look more rested, after you took the morning off.  You still look tired!”

I laughed with them, saying I was much refreshed, since I had spent the morning quietly relaxing, reading, and sleeping.

Dana, however, eyed me carefully.  “You look more than tired.  There is something else– what is it, really?”

Later that day, I found Dana alone and sat down beside her.  “There is something else,” I said, quietly.  “Don’t know how, but you see what other people don’t see.  I did spend some of my morning resting, and did eventually feel refreshed, but first there were tears…”

She listened as I explained why.  Then she wrapped her arms around me.  She told me she would pray and reminded me of the goodness of God.

I told her that when she put her arms around me, when she said that she could see me, I knew His eyes were on me also.

Sammi and I sat in the car with the windows rolled down, sweating as we longed for a breeze and waited for her sister to emerge from the house.  A four-year-old boy started to walk in front of us, talking to no one that we could see, and swinging an empty, pink-stained paint bucket.  We smiled at each other, happily distracted from the heat to wonder at the little guy’s chatter, and his choice of toys.

He noticed us and went immediately to Sammi’s side of the car.  He extended his hand to shake– while I suppressed my surprise and wondered if this kid’s culture had ever taught him to be cautious with strangers– and she politely took it, asking his name.

His answer was unintelligible, but she established that he lives in her neighborhood.  Then he said, in a voice just as matter-of-fact as Sammi’s own had been about the recent job opportunity lost:

“Do you know the news about my sister?  She’s dead.”

She kept her voice normal and asked what had happened.  “We gave her medicine, and we shook her like this, but she never got out of bed.”

“When?” He didn’t know.  As he wandered around the car to my side, Sammi told me, “He has a Syrian accent.”

I shook his hand.  Where are you from?  “Homs.”  The fallen capital of the Syrian revolution, some would say, but to him it is simply home.  He told us then that his favorite food is cake.  His favorite color is blue.  And then Sammi’s sister arrived, and we left.

Our arms waved goodbye.  But in our hearts, we held him.

His eyes are on us.

When injustice slaps beloved friends.  When delayed hope sickens hearts.  When shells echo in a four-year-old’s mind.

Sometimes we extend His love to each other with a hug, a word, a hearing of each others’ tales.  Sometimes we feel that love straight from the heart of the Father.

But even when we can’t see, when circumstances steal our eyes from His, He wants us to know He is present.

His arms are extended.

And He sees.  

Love Poem

Blue eyeliner framed her brown eyes, complimenting the vivid blue scarf that outlined her face.  The brightness of those colors and the youthfulness of her features were striking, especially in contrast with the seriousness of her expression, and the dullness of her tone, as she answered me.

I had told her and her friend that we would be doing a unit on “Love Poetry” at the university.  Would they tell me their thoughts on romance, men, love?  What are you looking for in a husband?  

What do you think men are looking for in a wife?

The first question drew dreamy looks, produced smile lines at the corners of their eyes; these vanished rapidly when they came to the second question.  “They want someone beautiful… dependent… to listen to them…”

Dependent?  I asked.

In a low, flat voice, she said, “They don’t want us to be strong.”

A couple of days ago I was in the middle of teaching one of our center’s English classes, when I was interrupted by surprising news from home.  A moment later, I was announcing to twenty Arab women and men something that most of our friends in the US hadn’t heard yet: my sister’s baby had arrived early.  It was time to celebrate.

They sang “Happy Birthday” in Arabic and English.  One went and bought sweets for everyone, and a cake, with the inscription “Happy Birthday Eveln.”  Not exactly how her parents spell it, but he tried.IMG_3839

I felt the joy with my students, passed the congratulations of the community center on to my sister, and went home and cried because I was not with them physically.

Then I texted Zaina.  She hears others’ stories differently since she lost her job, her homeland, and her security in a neighboring war.  She listened to my good news and my grief, offering words of blessing for the baby, congratulations to me as an auntie, and consolation in the challenge of being far apart.  Her capacity for compassion is strong within her sorrow.

On my niece’s birthday (although I didn’t know it was that at the time), my university class had analyzed Sylvia Plath’s poem Metaphors.  They tried to follow each clue:

I’m a riddle in nine syllables, 

An elephant, a ponderous house,

A melon strolling on two tendrils.

“Pregnancy!” they guessed, correctly.  The poem finishes with some less whimsical metaphors:

…I’m a means, a stage, a cow in calf.

I’ve eaten a bag of green apples,

Boarded the train there’s no getting off. 

The speaker seems to have lost her own identity; she has no meaning except as a “means” for the new.  What gives a person identity?  I asked.  What makes your life valuable? 

Hanna, a top student (and also the mother of three teenagers), answered, “Maybe her society told her that her worth was only in having children.  Maybe she didn’t like it, and that’s why she wrote this poem.”

Society often tells us what would make us valuable– whether it’s having kids, possessing lots of stuff, getting some prestigious education… I said.  But it doesn’t always give the right answers.  

What do YOU think?

“I think it is not about what we produce,” said Hanna, “It’s not about producing kids, or about work, or about money.  It’s about doing our purpose.  When God made Adam and…” She faltered for the English name; her holy book has a similar story of creation to what I know.  “Eve.  He gave them… both… a purpose.

Hanna knew that worth is defined by something more profound than opinions or circumstances.

Men– women– society– all sing loudly about what gives us value. Their melodies can be alluring, promising acceptance in exchange for acquiescence to their demands.  These demands can contradict, but sometimes, amidst all the dissonance, we can’t hear any other voice.

But there is an anthem, begun before creation, and its rhythm is restoration.  It’s a ballad of weak ones strengthened, lost ones found, distant ones brought close, lonely ones placed in families, grieving ones granted joy.  A carol of deeper identity than whom we can please, how we can protect ourselves from hurt, or what we can produce.

This is the song I want my students, and my new niece– and you– to hear.  The song I resonate with in new ways, every season.   A love poem set to music.

Listen.

Connections

I’m starting to see the connections.  For example, the Arabic word meaning to remain with is connected to the word for to sit down.  I get that.  A word that starts as discussion can easily become the word for argument.  Makes sense.

And one of the words for working out also means… math?

That one, I asked my teacher to clarify.  She grinned at my puzzled expression. “Of course: exercise for your body… or exercise for your mind!”

My mind is getting a lot more exercise than my body this summer, as community center activities take a hiatus and I sit with language teachers, studying word connections and sipping sweet coffee.   So I decided to borrow a work-out DVD from one of my housemates.  I’ve seen fit college athletes nurse aching limbs after one of these workouts: 30 Day Shred.

Jillian Michaels, the coach, reminds me daily: “You want change.  To get that, you’ve got to endure stress…. That’s how change happens.” (Did I mention that in Arabic, the word to beat/to hit someone is connected to the word to coach?)

Rob Reimer is a professor and pastor, and a person experienced in endurance of tough things.  His teaching “hits me”/coaches me even from across an ocean.  The truth is that amidst the summer stillness, I am restless for resolution– resolution of conflict in this region, of sadness of loved friends, and of longings in my own soul.  Reimer reminds me, “…this time between the promise and the delivery of the promise is the most critical time in the life of the people of God.  It is the “in between time.'” (Pathways to the King).

I wasn’t sure I had a story this week.  I am in between spring and fall semesters at the university, between Ramadan and the re-opening of the center,  between being green and being seasoned, between hearing the promises and being able to grasp them with my hands.  And tension resides.  My instinct with this tension is the same as my instinct with Jillian Michaels’ Shred video: I want a different way, I want to get out of it.  But stress builds change often, or at least creates the opportunity for it.  And I’m beginning to see the connection.

Here in the in-between, I spend my days studying Arabic and “shredding,” throwing away last semester’s worksheets to make way for new students, organizing my apartment to prepare for leaving it this fall to live a month with a local family… While I can see the end coming quickly to this in-between schedule, I don’t know when the resolutions promised will come.

Reimer says that, in the in-betweens, people face three major challenges:

  • trying to make things happen via our own resources
  • listening to competing voices (counter to what He says)
  • quitting

So instead I am waiting with arms stretched wide, with one side reaching toward the promises I’ve been given in the past, and the other stretching into hope for the days that remain to be seen; and with whole self here, present.  Sometimes there is pain in the stress.  But Rob and Jillian agree…

This stretch brings about change.  And it’s there that I get ready for new opportunities, which I saw take place even yesterday… although that is a second story.  For now, I’ll just say, holding arms wide open leaves me ready, giving or receiving, for an embrace.

 

 

 

 

New Day Beginning

Darkness hid the mountains as I stepped, for the first time, from the plane onto the tarmac in this new place.

I reached my city well after night had come, six months ago.  My first impressions were limited to what could be illuminated by orange streetlights and neon signs; an inky black covered the rest.

Stepping once again onto airport pavement, three weeks ago, I remembered that first hazy darkness. This time dusty outlines of mountains surrounded me and faded into the dusk.  I was picking up my sister for a week of life here: laughter and tears with Arab ladies at the community center, exploration of familiar and new places together, smiling acceptance of whatever food or drink was offered… She flowed with it all.IMG_1604

And then I was on another tarmac, mid-day.  My flight was shockingly un-delayed by the downpour that had drenched the morning, the rain that had saturated sidewalks and left behind a dull blue-gray sky.  My sister was heading home from our connecting city of Paris. I took a different direction; a group of professionals in similar work had been invited to gather on the coast of Spain.

I held little expectation, except to go to the beach during our free time… or during not-free time if needed.  I knew none of the other participants. I speak no Spanish (once I knew a little, but it is quite buried beneath Arabic for now).

I was unsure of what I would hear. But I came with a desire to listen.

Within an hour of arriving, I was at a local restaurant with a couple that does community development in London… soon after, meeting a young family that works in Afghanistan, English teachers from Africa, and business-developers who live in India.  I started hearing the many stories: smart ideas, failures, restoration, defeat, thefts, provision… Healed, in some cases.

Unhealed, other times.  Life.  Death.  Miracles.  Suffering.  Enduring.

And during our conference, eyes were feasted on seas, sunsets, and World Cup games.  Stomachs filled with good food, mouths with laughter.  Faces washed in tears as we heard some of the experiences.  Because as we came from around the world, many of us carried stories of broken bodies, broken relationships… companies… countries.

We also carried the knowledge of one who was with us. Every celebration. Every dark day.

Some friends and I had the chance to spend the night, last week, in the desert with the Bedouin. The stars– beyond all counting, beyond any descriptions– drew us flat on our backs in a half-circle, facing up. The darkest night displayed un-earthly glory, and all other nights have felt richer since I got that glimpse.

Two days ago, I was at another aiIMG_2184rport, this time to drop off dear friends who had been here to visit. They had taught me to cold brew coffee, hugged like they meant it, and reminded me of the most important things. The sun was rising as I drove home, warm bands of orange and pink that stretched over the desert horizon.

A heart filled up. A broadened view.

A new day.

 

Reference Point. Or…The Dinosaur in the Hallway.

There is a dinosaur in the university.10342460_10203321969786695_2019027340608404385_n

Silver-spiked, short-armed, long-clawed. A protruding forked tongue. Eyes that are surprisingly mellow, belying his sharp fangs and reaching fingers.

I went to the university yesterday with my sister. I had asked her to come with me to meet some of the other teachers and my students, while I quickly handed in my grades for the semester. But trying to function in a language/university system that are still somewhat strange to me, my “quickly” translated into an hour and a half.

When we finally left the teachers’ office, I pointed at it. “See that?” I said to my sister. Her response: “Why?”

“I don’t know why there’s a dinosaur in the hallway. But let’s take a selfie.”

We took a picture and hurried in the other direction, before anyone could ask us what we were doing. As we left the university, I told her that the dinosaur had one other purpose. “Every hall here looks the same,” I said. “Nothing is hanging on the walls; the dinosaur tells me I’m going in the right direction.”

A point of reference keeps me steady in uncertain days. My dear friend, Zaina, approached me at the community center this past Sunday, after our fitness class. “I’m leaving in one week,” she said, the tears in her eyes belying the calm tone of her voice. “My husband has decided we need to go sooner than I thought.” Zaina and her family came because of conflict in their home country, and though she is afraid of going back, her loyalty to her husband is stronger than her fear.

Zaina’s friendship has been a point of reference for me, letting me know I am heading in the right direction. We ask each other questions and talk about dreams for the future; she lets me practice the stories I learn in Arabic. Her English fluency allows deeper conversations than I can have with many others yet, and she has become one of my closest friends.

When I said goodbye to Zaina, I gave her a book that has been a point of reference for me. “These are poems, mostly written by King David– he experienced war and loss. But he found steadiness in his faith.” I showed her the first one, and she read it aloud, in Arabic. “He is like a tree, planted by streams of water…”

Zaina’s plans changed; she will be here for a few more weeks. In the meantime, she is collecting notes from the people who marked her life here, words she can reference when this season ends. She gave me a note, as well. “I noticed the foreigner, but I didn’t know when I first laid eyes on you,” she wrote, “that you would be a friend who stays with me wherever I go.”

Some points of reference develop through time. Some through investment and effort. And some are given to us, as surprisingly and swiftly as a dinosaur in the hallway.

Wildflowers Live Here Too

I was riding on the back of a motorcycle in Asia when I glimpsed it.  The “motorcycle taxi driver” had taken the long way home. Tired, I wished I had remembered to tell him about the shortcut back to my host family’s place.  I was staying with them for a month while researching their city, and it had been tough– beyond anything I had experienced in the previous year of living in the country.  But we were too far in to take a shortcut.

This route brought us to a different horizon, on the city’s edge.  Instead of smothering smog and sun-concealing concrete, I saw low houses and fields lit up by a glorious orange sky, that was fading to pink, then to dusky blues.  My breath was caught.  Now I wanted the ride to be as long as it could be.

A talented friend, Shawna Handke, gave me a piece of her artwork while I was still in New York (you can see more here at her website).  Wildflowers Live Here Too, she calls it.  I love the movement, the color of the flowers–IMG_1082 and the stark beauty of the solid buildings.

The stories this week include some large piles of concrete, hard edged, pretending they possess power to delete the sun from the sky and keep the ground without life.  I will tell you only one: from a woman who eagerly helped our group pack first-aid boxes to give to refugees.  She is also here in flight of that war.

She showed pictures of her two kids, her mother, her sister, all smiling.  Then she showed a picture of dust and rubble.  “That is all that is left of our home,” she told me.  The difficulties of displaced people go far beyond material provision– loneliness, lack of family network, loss, insecurity… Although now she has become part of community exercise, she said she would go for weeks with no one to talk to, when she first arrived here.

The Wildflowers picture looked bare on my wall, and I found no frame.  So one night, inspired by Brene Brown’s challenge in Daring Greatly that gratitude is a PRACTICE, I grabbed a post-it note, jotted one thing to be grateful for that day, and stuck it on the edge of the picture.  Same thing the next day.  Two days after that.  The frame is a work in progress– sunset-colored notes reflecting the flowers that, in Shawna’s art, tower over black-and-white buildings, and somehow seem far more permanent.

  • My friend’s 6-year-old daughter smiling and greeting me as “Khalto,” the Arabic word for “auntie.”
  • A quiet place outside to sit with my music, journal.
  • A trio of messages from dear friends, coming when I needed them.

A fistful of wildflowers.

And perhaps, I can be a friend– a wildflower to my new acquaintance– as she, with her dedication to helping other displaced people in this town, is a wildflower in my eyes.

 

Listen (beyond the words)

“Forgive me– I don’t speak Arabic well yet.  I am new here.  I have been here about two months.”

Often I will introduce myself in the local language, prompting a flow of Arabic words that surpasses my comprehension.  So I make this little speech, and then say what I can.  And listen.

This week, 20 Syrian refugees came together at the community center.  Local Arab women, from our center’s fitness program, had talked about what it means to love others and what they could do to help. They donated clothes.  Then they organized and folded donations from others, and packed 41 bags to share with refugee families.  We invited these 20 women to come for a health seminar and– of course–  coffee, tea, and sesame cookies.

When I welcomed each lady in Arabic, and their response flowed past my comprehension, I made the speech.  “Forgive me, I don’t speak Arabic well yet…”  I added something extra: “But in America, I studied a little Arabic with a friend from Syria.”

Fast connections.  Warm smiles.  I even understood their response: one confirmed that my Syrian accent was still clear, and another insisted that I was “part American and part Syrian.”

Someone noticed the half-dozen young children, present with their mothers.  In record time, she assembled bags of kid-friendly snacks and chocolate milk, and deposited them into six delighted little pairs of hands.

With our own hands wrapped around coffee mugs, the fitness program ladies and Syrian women got to know each other.  One older refugee had been a mathematics professor at a university for 33 years.  “I got tired,” she told me, adding that she now lived with her youngest daughter.  Others named the cities from which they had come.  I recognized these cities from the news; they were sites of violent sieges and extreme civilian suffering.

Another woman told me her name, and I tried the question:  “What is your story?”  She shrugged, saw that I wanted to listen, and began.  I caught some fragments: war, house, destroyed, child… leg (these last two were repeated multiple times).  She did not need me to understand every word.  Even if I had, I think I would not be able to understand what she had been through.  So I listened.

I noticed three children, between three and five years old, contentedly munching from their snack bags.  They sat together.  Their feet dangled off of their chairs.  I attempted to talk to them, and they smiled, but were unsure of how to respond to the woman with long, yellow hair and words that tumbled.  The smallest got an idea, though.  Wordlessly– cheerfully– he offered me a chip.

I accepted.