Tag Archives: Travel

Song Inside the Sounds of Breaking Down

This is the story I think she told me.

My husband went every first day of the week.  He tried to get met to go with him, but I didn’t want to.  

Our families are both traditionally from a believing background, but I didn’t want anything to do with it.  Traveling speakers would come from Egypt and other places, and they would visit our home.  I didn’t want them to talk to me.  They would try and I would say, No, no.  They were trying to explain complicated things.  

Then there was trouble.  My children… She paused.  Her face reflected a grief that was deeper than her lips could explain.   

So I went to the church early, and I sat alone.  I went to pray, and to sing songs to God.   And as I praised… She stopped again, wiping her tears.  Sorry

As I praised, sitting by myself, He spoke to me.  

I kept singing more and more songs to God.  Her left palm was pointing up, her right palm placed over her heart.  Eyes looking through the ceiling.

It’s a beautiful thing to sing praise.

She looked down at the table, collecting herself with quiet dignity, and chuckling at her own unexpected display of emotion.  I murmured appreciation for it and wished I had understood more.  And we resumed our lesson, an elder Arab woman with deep faith– and with a son and daughter who are strong in spirit and body– and a young American who had come to visit her city for a brief Arabic intensive course, and who would leave with far more than she anticipated.

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It’s different, the town where I am planted for this week.

A few months ago, upon realizing that not only were my housemates leaving permanently but also most of my remaining coworkers were visiting Stateside at the beginning of the summer, my company director told me to consider clearing out of the country.  No way we’re letting you stay in that big house alone, during Ramadan, with no one to know if you are safe or otherwise.

I negotiated to be allowed live with my Aussie friend in the same city for the summer, after which my coworkers will return, and with them my future housemate (for my home-to-be on the second story).

My Aussie friend also needed to go abroad for a week in the summer, so I decided to take the opportunity to visit friends in other parts of the country, and to do some Arabic study.  Most of the people with whom I imagined myself staying, however, are also traveling.  A wedding.  A funeral.  A surgery.  A trip to Europe to visit family.  A several week respite from the intense climate, both of the desert and of the fasting month of Ramadan…

But the hospitality of our host country, thankfully, seems to have rubbed off on the international community.  A family I had met only once before agreed to provide a place to stay and study in a small northern town, where I could find a professional teacher.

This town has a younger foreign community, many of them college students also studying Arabic on their summer breaks.  Not every day do I write from a coffee shop where the majority of patrons speak English (most people here fast sunup to sundown for Ramadan, so this is one of the few restaurants that are open).  It feels foreign that this cafe is full of mixed tables of men and women, none of whom are smoking.

This town also has a more local gathering on Sundays.  When I went, I tried to join in the songs, decoding the right-to-left Arabic letters across the screen as fast as I could.  Then the slide would shift to a new set of puzzling peaks and swirls that must have meant something, at least to the earnest souls articulating the words in front of me.

In between songs I jotted a few words down, to ask my teacher.

The first one, she told me the next day, simply translated: “the One who is worshiped.”  The next, she said, means “the One who gave me life.”

Then she pointed to the last word.  “Presence.  So in the song, you say, ‘The God who is present.'”

“That’s beautiful,” I replied.

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“Why did he do that?” Sammi asked me.  I was checking the news, after our language lesson and an evening meal with her family, breaking their fast.

The main story was of a man who had gone into a club in the U.S. and murdered 49 people.

I told her I did not know why.  Sammi and I had been studying how to read her language, which is very different than speaking it.  We had earlier practiced from an Arabic translation of a Beverly Cleary Ramona story, but after we discussed the news, we opened another book, the Psalms.  The phrases sometimes feel hard to understand, even when I know the meaning in my heart:

“…let the afflicted hear and rejoice.”

“Taste and see that the Lord is good, blessed is the one who takes refuge in Him.”

“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” (34:2, 8, 18)

She read another chapter in her own tongue, swiftly.  I sat silently and tasted the familiar words in my mind.  Beside quiet waters.  He restores my soul.  He prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies.  I will dwell in His house… “So beautiful,” she said, and marked the page so that she could come back to those words whenever she needed to be reminded.

_____

This afternoon, I sat an empty bedroom.  It was the third I had borrowed in three weeks.  My mind was full, perspective elusive.  The meaning of some circumstances seems far more difficult to grasp than that of swiftly moving Arabic slides. So I turned to the next song on my playlist.

I heard the words:

I will not be moved
I’ll hold on to you

thesonginsidethesoundsofbreakingdown
Soundtrack- Song Inside the Sounds of Breaking Down

 

You grow beauty in my ashes
Sunlight in my sorrow
A garland for depression
You paint portraits on my mourning
Of hope and glory
With oil and with joy
There is a hope that will not disappoint you, no
Will not let you down, will not let you down

You, who are my hope
I will hold on to
You, who are my hope
I will hold on to

Hold On, John Mark McMillan

An ancient story of praise has recently struck me with its beauty: a woman with an alabaster jar, a brokenness that scandalized with the expense, hair in her face and love in the deep places, and kisses for the feet of the only One who really saw and really understood her.  Who loved her: far before the scent of perfume filled the room… as it lingered… and long after it left.

My teacher named her daughter Praise.  She and others reminded me this week that it doesn’t come only from hearts that are strong in confident hope, celebrating healed wounds and answered questions, surrounded with faith-filled fellow worshippers.

As a wise man told me this spring, worship happens whenever we turn from other distractions and lift up our eyes.

 

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Radical Welcome

“We long for the land,” she said. “The soil of home.” Anise chatted with us in the sitting room, one hand cradling a cup of coffee, the other steadying her infant daughter. Her parents had fled war in a neighboring country, when Anise was not much older than her baby is now.

Her identity is bound up in a land she only knows through her family’s stories, of Palestine.

Zaina, the hostess, carried heaping dishes of tabbouleh, vegetables, and hand-made pastries into the sitting room from the kitchen, which doubles as a bedroom for her two children. She sat down and listened as Anise’s stories continued. “My cousin tried to visit our homeland to see his mother before she died. They delayed him at the border for four days. When he got through, she was gone. Grief was strong. He had a stroke, and he has been paralyzed since.”

Anise retold her stories of woe and hunger for homelands with a flair that, from the surface, bordered on cheerfulness. She introduced us new listeners to her decades-old tales with great animation. Zaina’s face, however, grew cloudy, then dark. She burst into tears and ran into the kitchen.

Gathering tissues, Anise said to us in a matter-of-fact tone: “She fled Syria only eight months ago. It’s difficult. We all long for our lands.” And she went to the kitchen to pursue Zaina.

My second-story view this week is from an apartment in the United States, where I am staying with good friends. We are grieving the transition of a beloved woman of faith from this life to the next. Her husband sent me a text in the weeks leading up to her death, letting me know specifically that he was praying for me.

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Upside-down, isn’t it? The displaced being hosts. The grieving giving prayers. The wounded bringing wholeness. Since moving eight months ago, I have become an adult who needs to re-learn communication; a member separated from a body; an extroverted person who spends great portions of time in quiet.

It’s changing my perspective.

There is this story about giving food to the hungry, drink to those who thirst, a visit to those in prison, and a home to the lonely. Jesus said, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” In this upside-down time, I’ve been starting to see this story through the lens of the “least of these.”

For I was hungry for companionship, and an Arab family asked me to spend every night of their holidays with them, eating and playing games. I was thirsty for knowledge of the language, and new friends patiently repeated themselves until my mind was sated, unable to hold more. I was sick, and the women in the community center’s wellness program offered seven different cough remedies. I was a stranger to their country and their language, and they kept pouring coffee and urging me to eat more, kept insisting that I remain with them.

Last month, a family of Syrian refugees invited some friends and I to their home. From the second story of an apartment building on the border, they have watched and waited more than a year for stability to return to their homeland. Over the elaborate meal they fed us, we asked them about rent and employment and heard the story that had become familiar: high rental costs, no jobs.

Back at Zaina’s, while Anise was comforting her in the kitchen, I had thought about the night before.  I had been alone in my house, crying out homesick and longing for my own “land.” And I realized that with my decision to move here, I was sensing some type of hunger, thirst, and what it meant to be alone– and that Zaina, and my other friends who have been displaced by war and division, experienced that pain with much less choice and a far greater depth.  Yet they were the ones feeding me, helping me learn the language, and inviting me into their families.

I carry them in my heart for these days that I am visiting in the United States. They exist on the borders, uncertain of rent but offering a meal to strangers. They bear longing and even pain– for lost soil, for absent loved ones– and still look up, seeing those around them who hunger and thirst.

Even when my soul thirsts– when I grieve– when everything feels unsettled– will I extend a radical welcome?

Guest Post: Breaking Normal

10309652_10101980061293181_2687677473573907955_nThis blog is committed to getting a “fresh perspective,” so I asked my friend to write about his recent experience in the Middle East.  Sean is a good friend, teacher, lover of coffee, thinker, husband to Jenn, and a recent camel enthusiast.

I should be writing this guest blog post with a very bad attitude right now. It would be forgiven. It would be normal and expected, under the circumstances. Because those circumstances are so annoying.

You see, I was on my way to a coffee shop this morning to get some work done, but mostly to play chess on my iPhone, when my rear wheel began thumping and shaking and all sorts of other -ings that one is afraid of when one has no mechanical expertise whatsoever. So, annoyed, I called AAA, and annoyed, I gave the service rep my information, and annoyed, I pulled out my phone to kill the 15 annoying minutes it took for the tow-truck driver to show up.

After the annoying three minute drive to the repair shop I had to wait another 10 annoying minutes in line before ordering up two new tires (I ordered an extra back tire to pre-empt any possible annoyance come wintertime).

Now I’m writing this post from an air-conditioned coffee shop while I wait for my chicken sandwich and still feel…privileged. Convenience is my normal.

One month ago I was driving along a highway through the desert in the Middle East, and I wondered what would happen if I popped a tire or if the engine overheated. With only pavement and sand on my horizon, without exits or rest stops for miles upon miles, I became nervous. Then I wondered what the normal response for an annoying situation in the desert was.

Then I wondered if there is even such a thing as annoying, or inconvenient, or mildly frustrating in the Middle East desert. Because after 11 days between two countries, the collective psyche I picked up from the people fluctuated between that of welcoming, hospitable, friendly, and aggressive, crisis, “get it done.”

It seemed like the world was only made to play in, until talk shifted to a local refugee crisis.

It seemed like all people knew how to do was talk and laugh and loiter, until you heard what life was like as a marginalized, displaced person.

It seemed like everyone was so proud that there home was the birthplace of so much ancient history, until you find out that so many people are not allowed to return to their actual homes.

So why would there be categories for trivial issues that can so readily alter the mood of an average Western person, when they so pale in comparison to the depths of love and longing that are experienced on a daily basis?

Maybe these categories do exist where I visited, and I was simply culturally blind to them while adjusting to normal: military officers walking the beat; women wearing layers of covering over their bodies, yet not failing to wholeheartedly express themselves through laughter and smiles and all the emotions communicated through the eyes; witnessing police checkpoints and interrogations from a distance while getting the privileged, trusted American treatment.

I was shocked at how quickly strange became normal. The only true difference is that I had to become aware and make adjustments in the Middle East. By the third or fourth sighting, I hardly noticed the military presence. By the third or fourth conversation, fully-covered women posed no ideological difficulty for me.

(Funny what an encounter with humanity will do to ideology, isn’t it?)

Back here, I don’t need to adjust to a flat tire —> tow-truck —> repair shop —> air-conditioned coffee shop on a laptop experience, all within two and a half hours, because over here it’s just annoying. It’s a lack of convenience turned into the very definition of convenience, with barely an appreciation for it.

So I’m trying to train my mind to relive the trek across the desert, the interactions with expressive eyes, the historic conflicts that are occurring on historic land. Because at this point it does not much matter what constitutes normal. It’s the blinding familiarity with it that can keep us from a full life.

Most good stories don’t contain much normal; we crave fantasy, suspense, adventure. Even so, our favorite stories can become dangerously familiar and routine. As can our daily experienced stories.

And that’s why we ask for a Second Story — to break us out of our normal.

So read on.

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.

 

A Key and an Address

Unwinding the housekeys from my keyring, three days ago, I traveled back in my mind to the time before I received them.  It was more than three and a half years ago, and I was about to finish grad school.  I did not know the answer to the question, “What is your post-graduate address?”  When the question was settled, and the little silver key was placed in my hands, I celebrated.

“What’ll your overseas address be?”  That question has given me pause the past few days.  I unwound the housekey for my New York apartment before I had the replacement in my hands, before I knew what my address would be.  I left behind a few other keys– from the fellowship where I led worship, from the car that carried me.  Dear friends prayed, laughed, ate, sang, packed, cried, celebrated with me.  And I waved goodbye from the far side of airport security.

Only 20 hours later, I was here in the Middle East, at the door of my new apartment.  A new silver key was in my hand.  While I’m excited to be settling in well so far, I stepped into a world that is bringing surprises in unexpected places– even in my own home.  Three small examples of familiar things that took on a new dimension for me since my arrival last night:

  • Songs– As I was unpacking today, and listening to Brian and Katie Torwalt’s worship song “I’m a Lover of Your Presence“, the call to prayer resonated loudly underneath it from a nearby mosque.
  • Rain– This city does not get it more than a couple of times a year, but it came today.  It left a damp, dusty smell, and prompted the kids upstairs to run excitedly outside to catch a glimpse of it.
  • Recycling– It turns out this city does not do it at all!!  EXCEPT at the community center’s project that turns peoples’ trash into amazing jewelry (while also employing local people.  E-mail me if you want to find out how to get involved).

P.S.  I still don’t know my address.