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Four Letter Words

It started with a casual itch.

I denied anything was out of the ordinary.

I mentally rejected the possibility that I had them.

I had heard tales of sweet, innocent children secretly carrying these repugnant critters in their braids and under their prayer caps.

But then I started feeling them.

On my head.

I lay awake at night, paralyzed in fear, because I could literally feel them moving around under my hair. I am so disgusted by lice that it is difficult for me to even type those 4 letters. 

But I choose to be courageous. I decided, as shameful and gross and vomit-inducing as this was, I needed to tell someone. I texted a nurse here I knew and she told me what medicine to buy. Then she jerked all my pride issues to the surface and said I needed to get someone else to check my hair to comb them out.

What? Someone else has to know? Uh-Uh. Nope. Not happening.

Oh the shame. I wallowed. I squirmed. I succumbed to the humiliation.

I bought the stuff. I bought the special comb. I felt nauseous. I pretended they were for someone else. I waited. 

After another restless night, with things creeping around my head, I decided I had to stop by my friend’s house on the way back from work. I called her name and she came out, all smiles. I sat her down. I need to ask you something, I told her, but you can say no. My tone said that this was serious and essentially life-threatening and not a joke at all.

With all the bravery I could muster and in my best Urdu so I wouldn’t have to repeat myself, I said- You know those small bugs? Would you check my head for them?

She paused for half a second, laughed, and replied, Yes yes! Hold on.

I fumbled in surprise and tried to grasp what was happening- Well you don’t have to do it right now! Just whenever you might be free. I told her. Oh no, she said. Sit still, she said. Let me get a comb, she said. 

I can run to my house and get the special comb, I told her. (The one I had condemned to this awful fate.)

Really- it’s fine, she said confidently. I’ll boil and clean this one after. And she bounced right into her house and brought out her own comb.

And right then and there, in the middle of everything else that afternoon, in the middle of chores and cooking and minding the kids, like it was of absolute no importance at all, she sat me down. For an hour, she looked through and picked out bugs from my hair with no gloves and her own comb while she made small talk about her studies.

This task I had loathed and shuddered at, the favor I had asked with so much shame and nausea- it was nothing less than exactly what was expected in her understanding of friendship.

And I understood- this is love. Getting down and dirty. Seeing each other at our worst. Choosing to show kindness right then and there. Using what we have to demonstrate the power of one four-letter word over another four-letter one. This is what love looks like.

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Motorcycles

I did something my father always told me not to.

I rode on another man’s motorcycle. (Strike one.)

Without a helmet (Strike two.)

Side saddle style (Strike three.)

 

Sorry, Dad.

 

But since I figured I was already out of the game (3 strikes you’re out, right?) and the rush of the moment was addictive, I went ahead and tried for the home run.

I asked to be taught to drive the motorcycle. And I sat my little butt on that bike- no helmet, wearing sandals, and a long dupatta that could easily, treacherously wind itself around a tire.

He said- this is the brake, the clutch, the this, the that. And in my enthusiasm, I vigorously nodded and giggled and said- let’s do this. And the engine purred and I went all of about 15 feet on the sidewalk and then braked. I turned to flash my confident smile- go to the end they prompted. But my second start wasn’t quite as smooth. And my cockiness pushed out my ability to remember which one was the brake and the gas and the this and the that. My stomach flipped and I knew I would fall. So before I reached the gravel, while the cushion of grass still enveloped me, I inhaled and released all the things my hands were grasping. As gracefully as possible, I fell with the bike into the grass.

The guys came sprinting over, scared to death that some CNN reporter would get wind of the crash and ask questions about how the white girl died in a motorcycle accident and whose fault it was. I stood up, laughed to cover up my shame and skinned elbow, and tried to brush my embarrassment off with the bits of grass in my hair. Their eyes were as big as the tires. I reassured and reassured them I was just fine and they reassured and reassured me that (thankfully) so was the bike. They-as culturally appropriate as was possible-pointed out the dirt on my shirt and-without ever actually touching me-noted the grass stains on my pants.

I’ll be quicker to follow my father’s advice next time about the helmet.

 

Risks. Adventures. Thrills.

They drive us. They propel us. They make us look ridiculous.

But the moment we let go, the moment we release our hands-

we give ourselves over to the freedom that allows us to fall.

 

Failures. Defeats. Flops.

They shame us. They inhibit us. They make us look ridiculous.

But the moment we fall, the moment our elbows get kissed by the ground-

we give ourselves over to the beauty of the friends who surround us.

 

Laughter. Humility. Vulnerability.

They unite us. They shape us.

They make us the beautiful, broken humans we are.

But the moment our community shows up, the moment in the midst of stupidity when we can squeeze out a grin-

we give ourselves over to the heart of life.

To Miss

Yad krna.

To remember.

To miss.

To not forget.

It’s all the same.

 

In Urdu the verb yad krna means to remember. It also means to miss. To not remember, to not miss- this is to forget. You nahi yad kia {forgot} your passport? I yad krti hun {miss} you. Do you yad krti hai {remember} when we went to the beach?

I love that remembering is the same as missing. Because it is exactly where my heart is at this moment. I cannot imagine forgetting the smell of bread on an open fire, the feel of desert heat beating down, the moment someone laughs because I managed a joke in Urdu, or the shy turn of her head as she covers up a smile with her dupatta. I can’t imagine remembering this place, these beautiful people, or the way my heart feels, without missing them all deeply.

But I’m so terrified of forgetting.

Every other place I’ve been to, I’ve walked alongside others. I’ve travelled in a hodge-podge group of students, friends, or with fellow bleeding hearts. And when your feet return to the land of free refills, asphalted parking lots, and stars and stripes- you all remember together. You call each other and tug at threads of memories, Do you remember when this happened and how we rolled with laughter or how the mother braided our hair or how they gave so much out of their full hearts but empty bellies? Do you remember? Can you still see it? And they nod and you tear up on the phone and reminisce as you look at the thread bracelet wound around your wrist. And there are people to grieve with over the loss. Who don’t grow weary of the stories of places others cannot be expected to understand. Who peruse with you over pictures and videos of the same faces again and again. There are people to remember with. There are people who don’t let you forget.

I’m terrified of forgetting.

All the little moments and funny phrases and knock-you-down surprises. I want to cram them all in a trunk with me and lug it to the airport. I want to fill up my suitcase with hugs and tears and laughs and revelations and impossible dreams. I want to photograph every moment of the humdrum of daily life, but I’d rather live it instead. I’d rather be present and hope that my heart is stronger than I think.

So I’ll take photos when my phone is charged. And I’ll write their stories when the power is out. And I’ll hope that they always stay with me. But I think the best way to yad krna, to remember, to miss, and to not forget- the best way is to fill my heart up again and again and again.

Instead of being afraid of forgetting, I choose to only be fearful of not living. I will remember and I will miss. I will grieve the loss of this piece of my heart. I will miss and remember because these moments dance to my own heartbeats. 

Saturday Afternoons

I hear the pitter patter of their feet as they come up the stairs. Most of the time I am sitting on the porch and I get to listen to their whisperings, as they carry on unaware of my presence. They stand on tiptoes to ring the bell. Miss? Miss? They yell up at me.

I smile, grab my dupatta from its place on the chair and open the creaky screen door to let them in.

Sometimes it is just Hina and Sita, sometimes their younger brother Kewal comes too, sometimes they bring a friend. Hina always begins by asking to take pictures. She knows how to use my iphone to get to the camera, to change the filter, and to take more selfies than is probably healthy at her age, which is 8.

After a short photo session, if she has brought a friend, she makes them sit down across from me in the other wicker chair. She takes the photo album a friend made me for a bridesmaid’s gift and gingerly lifts the cover. She knows the pictures by heart. This is Miss Caroline’s friend, she says. Her name is Lindsey. This is Hannah (pointing to Jess), this is Jess (pointing to Hannah), and this is…this is…. Karen? Callie, I say. Callie.

This is Miss in an ocean (hot tub). This is Miss eating cake. This is Miss sad because all the cake is gone. This is Miss dressing up like a lion (Thank you Step Sing.) Miss, why do you look like a lion again? This is Miss at her ceremony because she passed her class (graduation).

She asks if I have any new pictures, which most of the time I do not. This is followed by requests for me to braid her hair, for candy, for another photo shoot with me, or for a dance. Most of the time, we dance.

Her favorite song is a Bollywood one called Hookah Bar. I have no comment regarding this or its appropriateness for an 8 year-old. But it does have a good beat.

After 15 or 20 minutes, the others are ready to move on. C’mon Hina, they say, lets go. And Hina looks for reasons to stay. Something new on my fridge. Another photo idea. A cat on the stairs. An unmade bed to scold me about.

Reluctantly she clomps down the stairs back into the compound, her sister hitting my bell as she goes past. Hina’s hand slides around the corner wall and she smiles back up at me, See you later okay bye!

Every time I come into the compound from the market, from the office, from anywhere at all- Hina runs up to me. She is always playing outside, she always waves. And regardless of whether I can wave back or whether my hands are full, she gallops up towards me. Her admiration is enchanting, slightly overwhelming, and mostly so incredibly affirming in ways she cannot possibly know. She quietly, unconsciously tells me that this is indeed where I belong.Image

How I learned to listen

Learning is a much too active a word. This learning for me was and is so much more passive than that. It was more that I took part in something. That I willingly gave myself over to some experiment of sorts, with no hypothesis in mind nor process or procedures outlined.

When I made the decision to come, I knew language would be a barrier, would be a challenge. But to the surprise of my language teachers and fellow foreigners, I picked it up much more quickly than I should have. This is not to say that I am a poetic speaker of Urdu who can craft sonnets or write dissertation papers. This has much less to do with my intellectual ability than it does with my un-fear of looking ridiculous and my abandonment that leads me to practice and try to speak as much as I can. My amazing talent of making mistakes and lack of worry about looking stupid yields fruit in my language learning.

After 4 months of intensive language, I could communicate. I could explain myself and my ideas, lead trainings, play Simon Says, and comment during devotions. It has been a beautiful thing. But what I have learned most is not how to speak, but how to listen. 

I have learned that when emotions are high and things matter most- my Urdu slips away (and for the better.) That when a friend is in sorrow and I cannot seem to recall the difference in saying I’m sitting in this sorrow with you and I’m sitting in your lap; that when a friend is frustrated because I understand their language but not always the customs and traditions that direct it; that when a group of leaders are plundering through problems to get to root issues and I can only draw the diagrams on the board because my words are too excited to stop dancing around and make sense; I learned that understanding the other is so much more vital than being able to comment.

I didn’t learn to speak; I learned to listen.

I remembered and re-learned and came back to what is perhaps central in each of us. That language is a tool for relationships, but not always the best one. The best one is often sharing a meal, squeezing a hand in love, braiding her hair, an apologetic exhale, or a nod that says- I know. You are understood. The only tool we really need in relating to another child of our Creator is an open heart. Large enough to carry their hurt, wide enough to bend and see through a different perspective, and flexible enough to expand and contract as life flows through.

So when my tongue is exhausted and I have no more words, what I want most is for another pilgrim to nod their head, squeeze my hand, and declare with their loudest heartbeat- I know. You are understood.

May we learn to listen. May we learn to hear another’s heartbeat more loudly than any other chaos.

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Psalm 23

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

I shall not want. I shall have all the things my faith requires. I shall not want for grace or love or mercy. You, my shepherd, provide.

You make me lie down in green pastures.

You give me rest. You sit with me so that I might find peace in your presence.

You lead me beside still waters.

Waters of comfort. Waters that soothe my spirit and wash over my wounds. Waters that bring healing.

You restore my soul.

You make it new. You make it unbroken. You heal the parts in me that are heavy and impure.

You lead me in right paths for your name’s sake.

Not for my own glory. Not for my benefit. Not for my own gain or good. But for your name’s sake. For your perfect and holy name.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley

Even though I am afraid. Even though darkness surrounds me. Though I cannot see what is ahead.

I will fear no evil.

I will not allow fear to consume or control me. I will not fear the unknown, instead I will trust. Instead I will choose to believe again and again that your timing is not my own. Instead I will fear only being apart from your presence. But I will not fear evil. 

For you are with me.

And that is all I need to know. For you are Emmanuel. You are God with us. With me.

Your rod and your staff— they comfort me.

You direct and guide me. You discipline me out of your abundant love.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.

You never promise this life will be safe or easy or comfortable or anything less than dangerous. But you do- 

Anoint my head with oil

You have chosen me. You continually choose me. You have called me beloved. You have called me to your purposes, which are far greater than mine.

My cup overflows.

With blessings. With grace. With beautiful things I do not deserve.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.

Not because I am good or merciful. Not because I am perfect or kind. Not because I have earned the right to be in your presence. But because you are the one who goes with me.

And I shall dwell

I shall dwell. I shall dwell.

I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my God.

My Emmanuel. My Jehovah. My Yahweh. The one who see my sorrow, hears my cries, and knows my heart.

I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my God forever. 

And ever.

All the days of my life.

Amen.

 

 

{This was given by Hannah Valentine (who kindly translated the comments into Urdu) and myself at an event with the Church of Pakistan}

Grocery Store Contemplation

Some day, grocery store trips send you pondering deep philosophical thoughts.

Ap kis ciz per ay? What thing did you come here for?

There is a sanctuary in my city filled with boxed cereal and scented candles and imported cookie mixes and canned corn. This grocery store is a lovely, AC filled place of joy where there are aisles and things have prices and labels are on every item and people hand out free samples and it is just so easy. 

I’ve only been there a handful of times because the markets near my house are so much closer and cheaper. But there are days when this store becomes my oasis, my refuge. Where I get giddy over the possibility that maybe, just maybe, they will have popcorn this time. 

On one particular Friday afternoon, I happened to run into 4 different people I knew at this haven in the heat. We smiled and small talked. We said, “Did you see they have this now?” and “I’ve been looking for that…” And I felt I was in community. That somehow grocery store small talk meant I had made a home for myself. That chance encounters with friends justified using Pakistan as my home address.

One of the ladies kissed my cheek and asked me what I came for. I laughed and said the AC but I ended up with a basket of peanut butter, mango juice, and coconut hand soap. She said, me too and showed me her own basket full of ends and odds. Our camaraderie sealed with our

My treasure finds bagged, I headed home.  Yet her question lingered, even after the doors closed behind me and the last swoosh of AC brushed my feet.

What thing did I come here for?

To show love? To fight injustices? To learn about another culture? To prove something? To seek God’s presence? To not disappoint? To follow my heart? To chase a dream? To do good?

Maybe for all of these things. Maybe not.

Maybe we come here for one thing and realize half way through that what we wanted most was to feel at home. Maybe it isn’t as important what we came here for, but who is with us in the journey. Maybe we get distracted along the way and still something beautiful rises up to meet us. Maybe coming with empty baskets allows us to fill up with joy and laughter and peace.

Because I don’t think I came to the grocery store that afternoon to learn a lesson in how I posture myself, but I think learning the beauty of community was a far better deal than the peanut butter I bought. 

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