Tag Archives: story

Stories and The Story

I’m originally from Central Asia.  Now I live half of the time in a European country, half of the time in another Asian country.  

And I cannot go home.

These were her answers to the questions, “Where are you from?  What do you do in that place?”  I had already exchanged these two questions with dozens of other younger leaders, at this international gathering in Southeast Asia.  I had heard answers as varied as:

  • a Swedish woman with an Alabama accent, who is passionate about training university students
  • a Chinese man who works toward wholeness for people with leprosy, attending to their souls and their skins
  • An Indian brother with a ten-inch beard and a smile that infects everyone around him, whether at the conference or at his home in New Delhi
  • A South African lady who asks big questions and uses her expertise in design and marketing to share hope, via the internet and around the world
  • A Nicaraguan who holds church in a dump and inspires children to a future other than picking up garbage

The woman from the sensitive region, whom I met on the second day of the conference, turned out to be one of our speakers a few days later.  She told of what she had experienced while still in her country.  Imprisonment.  Pain.  Solitary confinement for weeks on end.  

The arms of God around her shoulders.  

“I am not a brave person,” she said.  “I am so ordinary.  But I’m here to tell you that if God can give me the strength to suffer for His name, He can give it to you also.

“If God calls you to suffer, He will also give you the strength you need.

She squeezed.  I thought she might dislocate a couple of my fingers.

Lina, one of 60 teenaged Arab girls on the boat that day, had changed since she joined the Young Leaders Program the year before.  She had been unwilling to interact with the other students, and held back whenever she encountered new things.

If concern about peoples’ stereotypes of orphans or of people with disabilities had had anything to do with it, Lina had two strikes against her, from early on in life.

Her teacher had coaxed her to share some of her insights and abilities with Young Leaders.  Thriving in English, developing some real friendships, and leading her classmates to volunteer with children at the orphanage where she lived– Lina had eventually achieved some major victories.  But on this day her teacher was once again trying to coax her.

This time it was to get on board the “banana boat,” a small inflatable raft pulled by a speedboat, a new experience for the students.

Lina didn’t pretend, when we asked her why she didn’t join the others.  She answered with one word: “Fear.”

I put my arm around her shoulders.  I’ve watched you become braver every month since you started the program.  You can do this.

She paused for a second.  “Will you come with me?”

So I got on the banana boat.  Lina buried her face in her oversized life jacket, like a turtle withdrawing defensively into its shell.  She squinted her eyes shut, and when one spray of water hit her, grabbed my hand like it was her lifesaver.  My peaceful words were effective in getting her to look up and enjoy the view… for about three seconds at a time.

I have been riding around, particularly this summer, with my eyes squinted shut and with my head tucked low in defense.  Yes, I’ve been on the boat.  But I have forgotten to look at the view, to breathe through the challenges.  Any little splash, and I grip His hand in panic, as if I don’t know there are already arms around my shoulders.

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One of several amazing Southeast Asian sunsets

After a week surrounded by younger leaders from around the world, in the Southeast Asian nation I once called home, with the Love that expels fear spoken and danced and sung and prayed into me, I had gained perspective.

But I wondered if it would last once I got back.

On the last night, after the session, my Arab friend and I met up with some other conference participants.  We sat across from a Mexican, who works among the physically poor, and a Canadian, who works with “poor people who happen to be affluent”– those leaders of business and government whose levels of power make their spiritual poverty harder to address.

They asked one expected question: “How do you like living in the Middle East?”  I had prepared for it.  I love it, but honestly it is really hard sometimes.

I had not prepared for the unexpectedly sincere follow-up: “What’s hard about it?”

In the seconds that followed three images swept through my mind: pulling up to an airport at night to release teammates, sitting in my empty house on the yellow couch and weeping, and the face of my Arab “younger brother,” who grasps my culture more than most but often still stereotypes my nation and my gender.  I managed an answer: Heavy transitioning in the community of internationals… being in a leadership position that I feel inadequate for… cultural struggles as a Westerner in the Arab world.  

The Mexican put her arms around me, encouraging me about what would happen for my soul this year.

Our exchanges of stories continued, as I told them of the woman on the red motorcycle who had once given me a ride in Southeast Asia, and the Canadian told of how being the son of Indian and Malaysian parents– and working with senior business folks in Saskatchewan– was strangely like being a blonde woman in the Middle East.  A light rain fell through the opening in the outdoor canopy, and we went on regardless of the time.

Toward the close of the night, the Canadian asked if he could go back to what I had said at the beginning.  “When you return… and you are in leadership…”  He paused for a second.

“Own it.”

I felt terribly ordinary.  I looked at the table and said something about knowing I was supposed to lead whether I was good at it or not.

“No!” he replied.  “Be good at it!  You’ve been mentored more than most people have been.  You don’t need to be perfect.  You’ve got this– you have what you need.”

He continued, with belief: “And– when I read the Story– it’s a story of joy and light.  Yes, there is grief, and there is darkness… but ultimately it’s a story not of darkness, but light.”

I lifted my head.  My eyes opened.

And they have remained so ever since I returned to my second story home in the Middle East.

Sound track for this month: The Art of Celebration, by Rend Collective.  Song Joy link is worth listening to now.

Last Question

Sixty girls sat on the floor in front of me, wrapping up their conversations from snack break, nudging each other.  They were settling in for one final hour– for this semester– in the Young Leaders program.

They will take three months off for summer.  But they know that before every significant break, and after every meaningful activity, comes one thing: a debriefing.

Usually this means that we direct questions to them, draw out their reflections, and delineate how the lessons inside this mentoring program should apply to life outside.  Some friends had inspired me to turn this around… So this time, we invited them to ask us about anything they wanted to know.

Teachers handed out slips of paper and pencils.  Students scribbled words in English or Arabic, whichever they felt more comfortable with, and passed their notes forward.  And we read their anonymous wonderings:

Why do girls fall in love so often at this age?

Why is the Young Leaders Program free?

Why do individuals like to say words that hurt other people?

Why don’t people care about what I feel?

How do I overcome the fear that controls me?

Why is everyone more beautiful than me?

 What existed before God created the universe?

How did Obama become president when there are so many racists?

Every week, a goodbye party takes place.

Departures and transitions often feature heavily in the months of May and June, but this year extraordinarily so.  Some are short-term goodbyes to long-term friends, heading to the States just for the summer.  A few are long-term goodbyes to several-month friends.  These volunteered for a season with our programs, but now must return to participate in grad programs, or weddings, or next steps.  They also must learn to give skinny answers to the fat question, “How was your time out there?” in order to squeeze it into a listener’s attention span.

Frequently featured at these goodbye parties are the questions: “What is something about _____ that you appreciate?” and  “What’s a funny story about ______?”

For one volunteer, Stephanie, several of us came up with the same answer.  Stephanie had gone with the Young Leaders girls to a bird observatory, when a two-hour nature walk among ducks and eagles and gulls had concluded with a surprise visit from a television crew.

They wanted to film the students and some interviews, but I protested– we would need pre-arranged permission from our organization.  They argued; our guide, eager for the promotion of his observatory, was beginning to lose face in front of both his visitors and the TV crew.  We would dishonor him by a refusal.  So we agreed to let them interview only adults, and they requested that both Arabs and Americans participate.

Smiling, southern-born Stephanie had been attentive to the girls all morning, her Arabic advanced enough for good questions and greetings, but not for the guide’s description of the birds we had seen or their habits.  She agreed to the interview, in order to help us out.

Stepping in front of the camera, several teachers and students watching her, and Ramsey at her side to translate, she colored a little.  “I’ve never done an interview,” she said in her Arkansas accent.

The interviewer asked how she had liked the bird observatory, and if she had visited before.  And then the simple question: “What kinds of birds did you see?”

Stephanie turned slightly pinker.  The names had all been given in Arabic.  She knew she had recognized many types of birds, but could recall nothing except the fact that people were staring at her and there was a camera and the whole thing was being translated. The question was asked a second time.

Maybe Ramsey can make this sound specific, she hoped, and smiled sweetly.  “Oh, we saw all kinds of birds.  Big birds and small birds, black birds and white birds…” she drawled. “Yellow birds and red birds, really pretty birds.  Lots of nice birds.”

Ramsey smothered his laughter long enough to translate her words– exactly.  Stephanie’s description of the birds may not have made the local news, but it went down at the center as a legend, retold with the echo of Stephanie’s amiable laughter in our ears, and her distinctive Southern accent describing the birds and protesting afterwards, “I just couldn’t think of anything else to say!”

When recently I took a trip to the US, I was met by friends and family, and supervisors and strangers, with the same question, one that made me pause. Sometimes it is easier to articulate answers to Middle Eastern teenagers about discrimination, personal value, the origin of the universe, and love-sick hearts, than to answer the well-intentioned inquiry: “How are you?”

  • In under three weeks, my housemates will leave permanently, a long-term goodbye from long-term friends.
  • In a little more than three weeks, the center will close for a season due to the approach of Ramadan, the fasting month, and other local and foreign coworkers will travel.
  • In two and a half weeks, I will move into a friend’s apartment for the summer, and later I’ll move again, to the second story of this home, with a different housemate.

Ask a new volunteer to describe the habits of sparrowhawks and storks in Arabic, and you’ll know what my answer to “How are you?” is like.

I am looking forward to breathing fresher air above, but I will miss my basement-turned-garden-level apartment.

I am holding on to hope, but I am letting go of loved people, routines, and places.

It is good, and it is hard.

Simplistic answers which satisfy some.  But they don’t fit the situation any more than the Dead Sea fits into a water bottle.

We asked the girls to give one another answers.

Hands shot up around the room.  “Comparing yourself with others isn’t worthwhile.”  “Do things even when you are afraid.”  “Martin Luther King, Jr. and others helped change peoples’ thinking.”

These aren’t answers so much as starting places; they will move forward and backward, believing and disbelieving, adding questions to questions and finding that the empty spaces of silence can be as significant as speech… or more valuable.

Basements have been comfortable starting places for me– I lived in one for three and a half years in New York, then two and a half more in the Middle East.  Perhaps the only way to summarize my answer to the last question is this:

I am about to begin a new story.

Beyond All Expectation

Skip school.  Don’t help with housework.  Return anger with a higher degree of rage.  Use coarse language.  Objectify.  Disrespect public property.

Expectations for local teenage boys, in many peoples’ minds, do not rise much higher than this.

And those who challenge expectations face consequences.  So when fifty teenagers piled into the community center, for the first day of our Young Leaders’ “Winter” Camp, their presence defied stereotypes.

They were not taking a break during school holidays, with their peers.  They were sitting shoulder to shoulder, cross-legged on carpet squares, listening carefully as the program director explained the week’s themes: Understand your identity.  Understand the truth.  Understand what it means to be a leader.

They watched clips from a speech by the highly-respected ruler of this nation; he called on youth to become authentic and clear-sighted leaders.  They listened to a story about an eagle who was raised as a chicken: born to ride the wind instead of scratch the soil, but limited by the assumptions she had internalized.  And throughout that hour, they seemed to forget that only a thin square of fabric separated them from the cold concrete floor.

They were locked in to every word that was said.

IMG_4105Two weeks ago, I sat along the beach, wondering what I was called to and searching for one word to lock in to for the next twelve months…. Something to shape my approach to work, friendships, family, faith, and everything else.  No big deal, right?

One word.  But as the sun was setting, I still had thousands of words tumbling in my mind.  Fragments of dreams, run-on sentences of determinations, each lofty but seemingly empty.  I had already tried hard, in the past year, to become all of those things.  I had landed far short of my goals.  Why should I expect my story to be different this year?

The students, when they finish their Winter Camp, will have heard writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDTalk The Danger of a Single Story.  She tells of growing up in middle-class Nigeria, on a university campus.  Later, in the United States, she discovered that many people had a single story of Africa: one of “senseless war,” poverty, and rampaging diseases.

When she– or her novels– did not fit into those categories, she faced others’ disappointment.

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Image from http://www.ted.com

She admits that, at times, she too has believed in “single stories.”  After seeing much Western media coverage on desperate immigrants from Mexico, who risked the breath in their bodies to achieve American soil, Adichie was shocked to travel south of the border and see contented souls, living out daily routines.

And, she says, she was ashamed.  She had bought into the media’s tale, as if it were the defining narrative for all Mexicans.  “That is how to create a single story,” she realized.  “Show a people as one thing, and only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.”

During the camp the Young Leaders will choose a way to express their condolences, to youth in a similar leadership program, in a city where 136 students and 13 adults recently lost their lives.  They know that many people around the world associate the majority faith here with violence, although they themselves are grieved and horrified by the events in Peshwar… and now also in Paris.  Adiche’s words resound in the context of these tragedies: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.  They make one story become the only story.”  

These teenagers face the single story of assumptions from outside their culture, expectations within their neighborhoods– and the limitations they put on themselves.  Will others’ opinions, or their own past failures, define their futures?  Will they internalize false presuppositions, like the story of the eagle who thought she was a chicken?

Or will they figure out who they really were made to be?

Stories soar in the context of relationships.  Sitting by the sea, searching for the right word, I saw that I had limited my hopes for 2015 to what – I – was capable of making happen.  Alone.

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Our words – from friends worldwide.

So I chose a word that is primarily relational.  It depends more on the Author of the story than on anyone else, and it feels like a risk.  If you gave me a word, and I gave you mine, know that I will remember you this year — we’re in this story together.  And if not, but you want in, comment with your word below :-).

Me.  You.  The teenagers in the leadership program .

Will we tell a second story?

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.

 

 

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.