Tag Archives: New York

One Word (a matter of light and death)

I held the box in my hands, waiting.

It gave me a moment to observe the givers.  One grinning, rubbing his hands– a gleeful, boyish gesture of impatience.  One watching with eyes shining, and a quiet whisper: “She’s going to love this.”  One sitting very close, her hands poised to assist and her presence, as always, a steadying one.

Their delight and anticipation on another’s behalf– that is worth more than anything they could have put inside this box, I thought.  Finally, I released their treasure from its plum-colored case.  It caught the light and shimmered.

IMG_4061My friend’s fingers fastened the fragile chain around my neck.  “We knew we had to choose this green stone for you,” she said.  “Because of your word for the coming year.”

It was the night before I left New York, in order to move to a different language and culture: that of the Arab world.  A few days earlier, I had been with most of the same friends on New Year’s Eve.  We spoke of our hopes for the coming year, set out the challenges, and then summed up our focus– what we were each determined to pursue in 2014– in a single word.  Mine was Life.

I had no idea how much dying would be required.

When I boarded the plane to the Middle East, I didn’t just carry on a guitar, a green pendant, and a good old L.L.Bean bag. I carried with me memories and anticipation.  But these had expanded with unchecked assumptions and fears: things that would stick out, in the year that followed, in the strangest places.

Change cuts deeply.  In those twelve months, it felt like a hammer and chisel were being applied. They broke off some pieces that I didn’t know existed, and others that I had been convinced were essential.

When I thought the work was complete and my appearance was again smooth, some new layer or other facet would be exposed.  I was left, for all to see, ragged.  The pressure of perfection built as I tried to adhere to mixed messages, regarding various aspects of life:

  • Dress attractivelythey don’t like frumpy here.  But not too attractively-you don’t want to look like you are trying to be sexy.
  • Work hardyou’ve got to learn Arabic and do your part as a member of your new “family”/company.  But don’t work too hard heed the cautionary tales of depression and burnout, from friends… and those no longer here.
  • Don’t expect too much— things may be slow, you have to be in it for the long haul.  But don’t expect too little— or you’ll get it. Too little.
  • Keep in touchyou need family and friends back home.  But open up hereyou must learn to depend on local friends/coworkers.
  • Be independent-– there are endless stories of “needy” personalities.  But don’t be too independent— don’t act like you know what you are doing before you really do.

But I’m not sure I’ll ever really know what I’m doing.  I am sometimes needy; sometimes overly communicating, sometimes overly guarded; sometimes focused on surviving, sometimes dreaming steps ahead; sometimes lazy, sometimes extended too far; sometimes sticking out, sometimes caught at a grocery store with a mis-matched skirt hastily thrown over my exercise clothes.  Complete with sneakers.  Frumpy AND sweaty.

What’s being put to death is security based on perfection.  Performance.  People.  And pleasing others.  A work that is in progress, but oh, it is positive.

And it is painful.

My story is only one part of the challenge.  The second stories cut deeper.  Sweet ladies whose dreams, bodies, and spirits are assaulted by discrimination and human depravity.  Syrian friends sent far from home, wondering which relatives are alive, wishing for escape.  Treasured family members and friends facing death, separation, and sickness from all around the world– their questions are unanswerable.

One morning I woke up to this world of work in progress, and I had in mind the manger.  A cloth-cloaked baby surrounded with straw.  Appearance is weak, but all power is His.  Lowly, but “by highest heaven adored.”  He is startling and He is strong.

And He is life.  An explosion of all prior expectations.

I’m on the sidelines.  I realize, in that picture, that we can cease attempting to perform perfectly, to resolve every question.  Because while chiseling has to happen for the stone to gleam, the brilliance never came from inside the rock.

Our tenderly cut stones catch the Light.  And we shimmer.

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Fragile Phrases

I had a great idea for my class’s end of semester project… I thought.

My students would write “inspirational quotations.”  After studying quotes from famous authors and public speakers all semester, they would challenge us with their individual ideas.  They would read and explain them in front of the class.

Similar projects I had undertaken previously, at a university in New York; there my students explained songs that gave them hope in dark situations.  Those were powerful times, charged with energy.  We would taste that here… I thought.

My English students’ original quotations, however, struck me as not terribly inspirational.  Same, familiar words.  The old themes: friendship, dreams, love, loyalty.  But they are flat– no vitality– no depth.

…I thought.

Afterward, my “un-inspired quotation experiment” was something I could laugh off, putting it to the side while I focused on grasping my own new language. My study of Arabic, like Frankenstein’s monster, is many pieces pulled together and coming to life:

  • a smattering of dialects
  • a few different textbooks
  • a half-dozen great suggestions from more experienced expatriates
  • and a really funny YouTube sitcom in Arabic that I don’t actually understand.

One of the liveliest parts of my language study right now is learning to tell stories.  My teacher, Ani, records the words, and I listen regularly.  I feel their texture– the ridges and rough patches, the curls of grace and the crisps of the corners– and I try to shape the same sounds from somewhere inside me.

When I succeed… I start the story.  I’ve been learning to talk about Jesus healing two blind men.  In Arabic, “Have mercy on us!” is Irhamna.  To me, this word tastes like mercy.  It feels like longing, like imploring, declaring that He will hear you– He has heard.

Meditating seems to overlap with the study of language.  I’ve experienced that phrase more deeply in Arabic than I did in more than 20 years of knowing it in English.  I had lost my savoring of stories, urged forward by my fluency as a native English speaker.

Now, slowed down by my fragile Arabic, I swallow sensitively.  I let every word sink deep.  And although I never was a foodie, I sure love hanging out with those who are.  They don’t count it loss to spend hours preparing something, and they delight in discovering and sharing good cuisine.

I’m learning to be like them.  The taste of the phrase “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on us!” is so sweet that I tell friends.  The texture of the miracle, when Jesus brings the daughter of a broken religious man back from death– is amazing.  I savor it well when I share it.  My friends, patiently, help me fill in the words that I don’t yet know.

Those “inspirational” words from my students that felt flat to me…. maybe they had deeper flavor, a richer taste, that I did not realize at first.  We are both still searching for words.  But that search itself helps to give us something to say.