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The Fourth Option

Zacky barked at every entrance during my first two and a half years of living in this house.

I had thought he would get used to me, since I frequently came in and out of the front gate to get to my basement apartment, and spent hours with his owners upstairs.  Excitable and determined to guard the family, the tiny terrier never let familiarity be an excuse not to bark.IMG_5073

His bark woke the family up when an electrical fire had started in the living room, and was quickly filling the rest of the house with smoke.  His bark deterred stray cats and warned off desert dogs.  His bark let us know every time someone was entering that gate, and the family could tell by his tone whether it was a stranger or a friend.  Like a baby’s parents know the difference between a hunger cry and a hurt cry.

He was strangely subdued when we took him, and the rest of the family, to the airport.  That could have been the result of the meds that were given to him to keep him calm on the plane; his human counterparts had no such outside influence.  Emotionally spent, celebrated and packed and grieved beyond the place of breaking, the family stood in a long security line and hugged us one more short time.

And then we left.

Empty handed on the way to the parking lot, we were weighed down more heavily than we had been by the suitcases and carry-ons.  The family eventually managed to get all 17 bags, and their dog, through security, and then flew away.

When we returned to the house, it looked the same as it had an hour earlier.  But there was no bark when I entered the gate.

“I understand why they are afraid,” Najua told me.  “I would be afraid too if I were them.”

And then she added, “We are afraid here also.”

Najua had asked me about America’s current political state, and I had commented that both in my home country and in many other places around the world, politics right then seemed to be driven by fear.  As a minority woman in her own country, Najua understands what it feels like to be marginalized.

It’s part of what makes her empathetic, determined to help end stereotypes and racism, and committed to developing Young Leaders (she teaches for this program at our center).  But she faces those fears daily.

In the face of the false dichotomy that fear presents– fight or flight– sometimes a nefarious third option emerges, to entice those forced to endure sustained stress: hope less (ness).  Giving up.  Thinking, I cannot fight successfully against this, and I cannot run away from it.

So I will allow the bitterness of despair to come over me .

We talked about how the power of God is seen in the death and crucifixion that brought life and resurrection.  And asked, What if there are options other than putting up a wall, being a doormat, or finding an escape hatch?  Is this upside-down kingdom possible to apply to us and our world?  

Does love have something to do with it?

I sit in the empty house often in the weeks after Zacky and my housemates move back to the U.S.  I brought my belongings from the basement to the second story, but the sounds of their youngest on his pogo stick, of at least one of six family members rustling in the kitchen for food, of the music that someone was always playing, have ceased.  My own small sounds echo off of walls without their paintings.

Every night I go back to another area of town, where I am staying with an Aussie friend until August.  Then my new housemate will arrive, and a new season will begin as she and I live together in the second story house which once was occupied by four kids, two parents, and various four-legged creatures.

I converse with most of my teammates via Skype (as they are in America for the summer).  I study, plan for Young Leaders, read good books.  I eat unpronounceable things in the homes of local friends, laugh at stories in Arabic a little more often than I did before, attend the wedding of good friends.  When I invite the newlyweds to the second story for breakfast, there is no dog to alert me of their presence, so they text to say they are outside.  We eat my crepes and drink the coffee that my old housemates left behind.  When they leave, I lock the gate.

Before my housemates moved, they prayed for me.  May she not fear the loneliness.

And yet I fear more than isolation.  I fear closeness being withdrawn, due to choices or changing circumstances.  And changes are invariably looming on the horizon, like tides that pull back the water to leave the shore exposed, only to return with rock-splitting force time and time again.  In this sustained stress I reflect:  I cannot fight this.  I refuse flight.  

But there is a bitter taste of inevitability, of hopelessness, on my tongue.

Trying to wash away that bitter taste with familiar promises proved to be more difficult than I anticipated.  Until this one cut through: For I am convinced that… neither the present nor the future… nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

An empty house, so it happens, provides a perfect atmosphere for singing.  I draw my guitar out of its case.  The sounds of the strings echo off of empty walls, creating acoustics that are a musician’s dream.  I lift my voice as loud as I like, knowing that no other ears, human or hound, can hear.

Your love never fails, never gives up, never runs out on me.*  Words I sung with my housemates the week before they left.  Words I sung with my small group the night before I moved to the Middle East.

Despair, fight, and flight are options that cloud the vision so that it is hard to see one’s own hand in front of one’s face.  But even then, His hand remains on our shoulders.

Constant through the trial and the change.*

And I am starting to taste a fourth option.  Love.  To the God who knows my hungry cries and my hurt cries, from the God who fills this empty home with His songs.

*Lyrics of One Thing Remains, by Bethel Music

 

 

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The Art of Arabic Dance

I took a deep breath, hands resting against the steering wheel, then stepped out into the night.  The dark and silent road reminded me of my stay in that house a few months ago.

My former host mom and I had contacted each other occasionally since.  It had been a while since I heard from her, however, so her message that afternoon surprised me: “A few ladies are coming over for a little party tonight.  Come join us. Eight o’clock.”

It’s difficult to know what you’re getting into when people say “a little party” here.  They were in the sitting room, where we had never sat while I lived with them.  The ten-year-old threw herself into my arms for a hug; her younger brother also allowed a quick embrace, before they fled upstairs to the family room.

I introduced myself to the other guests: a well-made-up momma with a restless infant, a contented-looking grandmother, and a handful of other ladies– all coiffed to perfection.  When my host mom entered, she was wearing black leather boots and a leopard-print dress.

We all exchanged kisses on the cheek, and small talk on our lives, as more women entered the room.  They would arrive with head coverings, long robes, and plates of food.  Then they would disappear briefly into the kitchen, and re-emerge with unveiled hairdos, mid-thigh skirts, and four-inch heels.

I repented of my terribly comfortable– and terribly worn out– purple flats.

A friendly shouting match over song selection ensued.  The woman closest to the stereo solved it by abruptly turning up the music, so much so that no one could talk.  The only option was dancing.

My host mom started things off, joined by her best friend, Amany.  The rest of us sat in a circle, clapping in rhythm and watching the graceful arc of each arm, the subtle twist of each hip.  I had been to enough parties to know that these “simple”-seeming movements are not easily duplicated by someone who has NOT been reared on hummus and pita bread.

A few others took their turns in the middle, until they finally persuaded the oldest woman present to perform.  Perfect, controlled movements of her knees, hips, and shoulders, almost faster than the eye could see, astonished me for about half a song.  Then she cut herself off and sat down.

“I’m old,” she muttered.  “I can’t dance all night.”  But her smile-lines deepened around her eyes, communicating: I’ve still got it.

After repeated cajoling from the other women, the young momma plopped her child into his grandmother’s lap and took the center.  She danced with skill equal to the oldest, but had more flexibility.  Kicking off her stilettos, she drew her whole body– eyelashes to toenails to fingertips and everything in between– together into a living, swirling work of art.

Grandma patted the baby’s back in time to the beat.   I remembered the words of a wise old teacher: Some emotions are inexpressible with everyday words.  That’s why we need poetry, music, art….

and dancing.  

Contented as I was, I knew what was coming.  The ladies looked my way.  “Your turn,” they said, uncertain of how much urging I would require.

Exclamations of surprise and approval accompanied me as I stood up.  Standing up showed I was willing, and that went a long way.  I also knew it was better if I was not alone.  “Dance with me!” I said, drawing the woman beside the stereo with me into the middle.

The rest encouraged me like I was a kid who had just colored a cute picture.  Amany even smiled and said, “You dance like my nine-year-old!”

Given how nine-year-olds here dance, I thought, that is just fine.

Then they pointed to the corner, where the oldest woman was sitting.  She was waving her arms, trying to tell me something, but I could not hear or understand her over the music.  So she roused herself and stalked into the center of the circle, her eyes alive with merriment, confidence, and sass.  She put her hands on my waist.

“From here down you dance like an Arab.  But from here up you dance like a foreigner!”  And she commenced again with waving, showing me how to move my arms.

I got home around 11:30, my stomach stuffed with their desserts, my clothes saturated with their second-hand smoke, and my mind straining to remember their advice.  Let go.  Stay strong in the core.  Make small moves– they have great power.  Be flexible and consistent, together.  Encourage those who hold back.  Hold stuff for them if they need you to.  Teach the ones who are struggling.

You don’t need to keep your arms close.  You aren’t being called to protect yourself.  Open up.

Be always willing.  Even when there is awkwardness.  Even when you look like a child.  

Even when there is darkness.  

I am learning to dance.

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.

The Cupboard’s Full

We sat at a table in the sunshine.

Sandwiches were for lunch, as we collaborated on a Bible study and plans for a weekly meeting with our international colleagues.  My friend suggested an age-old method that guides people in listening to God through a passage, asking Him what He’s saying for ourselves, and then asking what He’s saying we should do with it (a process called Lexio Divina.)

The brownies had just come out of the oven, at that meeting with our fellow workers.  We read, slowly, the ancient words of Isaiah 55: “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! …Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?”  We listened for words from God and prayed them into everyone who asked.

Sweet juice, two cups of it, sat on the table in front of my Arabic teacher and me.  “I have no friends,” she said; and an ever-so-slight tremor in her voice undercut the stoicism in her face.  The hunger for relationship remained.  The tension between resignation to the situation being faced, and resistance of the circumstances– this tension I would see on dozens of other faces in the next few weeks.

Cheaply packaged chocolate wafers were handed out to all the students– and to us volunteers– at the afterschool program for young refugee women.  A social worker from Syria asked me how I was doing since the last time we had met.  After the pleasantries had been properly conveyed, she made one more statement, leaving me with no Arabic or English reply: “My house in Syria was burned in a fire.  It is gone.”

I was eating a late-night bowl of Raisin Bran while we chatted on Skype.  She caught me up on discoveries and dreams developing in Jersey, and asked how things were for me in the Middle East.   Have you ever seen a little girl try to lift her father?  I asked.  She can’t move him a bit, no matter how determined she is, how hard she tugs.  But he swings her into the air….

That’s how I feel when I read Isaiah 55.  I can stay hungry and thirsty, regretting my deficits, and scraping to find something to serve to others.  I can spend my labor, without moving the circumstances around me; and instead of satisfaction, I’ll get dissatisfaction and disillusionment.

Or I can let my Father carry both the weight of the world and of this little child.  A physical need, a method of connecting as human beings, a requirement for growth and replenishing, a gift to make celebrations more fun– food and drink are rich metaphors.  And I hear Him inviting me to sit down, drink and eat, and trust He’s got covered both my and my neighbors’ hungry souls.

Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. –Isaiah 55:2

P.S.– Currently on my “moving songs for this journey” list, and stay for the powerful lyrics: The Cupboard’s Full

Everything is new

“Vision: 1) the faculty or state of being able to see.  2) the ability to think or plan the future with imagination or wisdom.” (source: Google)

Just before I left the U.S., this word took root in my soul. I didn’t fully know why, but since I arrived here one month ago, it has continued to grow.  Hungry for vision, hungry to help others get it, hungry for supernatural revelation from God…

Thursday I sat in a circle of young women from this area.  They had come to practice their English.  We talked about dreams; at first, they listed jobs they wanted (doctor, professor).  Then we moved into discussing what kinds of people we want to be, no matter what our occupations.

Their answers were powerful and insightful.  They want to help people learn new things, to be compassionate to the poor, to bring laughter to those they meet.  One of the last said she planned to change the world.  The girl sitting next to her interrupted: “You can’t change the whole world!”

“No,” she replied.  She was searching for the words, gesturing with her hands.  “But, if I change it for one person, and they change it for one person…”

Since coming to the Middle East, I’ve been praying– and asking others to pray– for vision.  I tend to think in specific terms: I want vision for the Syrian refugee project, or for my English students, or for my Arab moms at the center.  Yesterday, my prayer shifted, because in order to live fully in the present that I’ve been given, I hunger after promise for the future.

I asked God for a broad vision.  What does He want for this place, for these people, for me and for my life?  Speaking through music seems to be God’s thing for me; this song played as I threw up my questions:

My eyes have seen the glory

Of the coming Lord

And it looks like streets restored after the vicious war.

It looks like lonely souls being alone no more.

My God, You rule, and everything is new

The world is changed, never the same

The light has come bearing Your name

The dawn that’s breaking in the East

Shines upon the least of these

Soon, everything is new

— Tim Coons, “Everything is New”

I want to think and plan for the future with wisdom and imagination, as reads that definition.  I want to see God’s perspective, to see people and this place through His eyes. And I want the same thing for you :).

May there be a still small voice that whispers in your ear God’s vision for your community, for your area, for you.  You see brokenness around you now, but God, when He moves, makes everything new– lonely souls alone no more, streets restored. May it be so… Amen.

One Art

His Alabama accent was thick.

I had met his wife shortly after I arrived, a Japanese woman who uses origami to connect with Syrian refugees. We had come together the week before to an after school program for young refugee women.  Waiting in the car with us, ready to help again this afternoon, was my friend’s precocious seven-year-old.  She spoke to her mom in Japanese and to me in English (with her dad reminding her that she should address me as “ma’am”).

We waited in the car, beside the locked door of the center.  Finally we called.  Times had changed– and we had missed the program.

The night before, I told a teammate how I have been feeling huge waves of grief sweep up, sometimes with long periods of stillness in between, and at other times a steady pounding.  She listened a long time, and did not attempt to solve things. “I think the measure of how good something is, is how much you mourn it,” she said.

Today she had me bring my guitar to our community center’s fitness room.  We met with three other women who are involved in the leadership of this fitness program, who were expecting to have a business meeting.  Instead, we sang; we proclaimed the love of God, the holiness of God, the miraculous healings and transformation, the power of God– over ourselves, the space, the women in our fitness program, and the rest of the city.

It was awesome.  So when my impatience stirred like a wind over calm seas, I was surprised.  “It’s getting late.  I need to go visit my Arab moms… or start studying…”  The tug to “do something” was strong.  A quiet voice told my soul, Peace! Be still.  We kept singing.

A favorite poem of mine declares, The art of losing isn’t hard to master.  The author, Elizabeth Bishop, advises,

Lose something every day.  Accept the fluster

of lost door keys, the hour badly spent. 

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

The poet records her losses, increasingly significant (I lost two cities, lovely ones, and vaster, / some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent…).  She moves from acceptance to seeming to try to convince herself that it’s no “disaster” to have lost what, or whom, she lost (see full poem here: One Art.)

And as I live here in the Middle East, in addition to studying language and society and new roles, I am studying this art.  The art of letting today’s “wasted hour” at the closed community center, turn into the joyful acquaintance of my new seven-year-old-Alabaman-Japanese buddy.

The art of knowing that the best use of time is the pursuit of loving God and others.  And if it’s more about the process than about producing, that must just be part of the art.

And the art of calling the losses the irreplaceable things that they are, and staying soft-hearted and open-handed, embracing life fully, every day.

Taken over… and over…

There were twenty minutes of class time left, and one of my students stood up.  “Professor,” she said.  “Since you’re leaving soon, we all have something to say.”

I’ve been teaching this college class for four years– a freshman-level course that aims to develop students’ academic, study, and personal skills.  We get quite personal in this class, talking about vision for the future, struggles, disappointments, and inspiration.  Each student even chooses a song that pushes them to keep going when things get tough, and presents these “inspirational lyrics” to their classmates (This year’s selection included everything from Bob Marley to worship songs to “Hakuna Matata“.)  That day each of them told how being in our class impacted them, and by doing so, wrote words on my heart that will long resonate.

Several days after my students “took over” class, I was at a Christmas party with the music team for my local Sunday fellowship.  We had all gathered in one room.  I thought it was time for the “white elephant” gift exchange, but again, someone stood up.  “Since you’re leaving soon, we have something to say.”

They didn’t just say kind things.  My fellow team members gave insights and observations to help me see what had worked well, what I should keep doing, and what strengths God has given me, that I can take into a new context.    Their words were blessings to continue what God was doing here, in my Middle Eastern community.

Take over normal conversations with words of encouragement.  Take over normal events with conversations that build up each others’ souls.  Those conversations will lead to laughter, risky feedback, deeper understanding, and occasionally tears.  And those conversations help us give each other perspective, “second-story” views on life.  Thanks to the students, friends, and family who do this in my world.