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The Wild Wonder of Life

Shortly after my daughter and I arrived in the U.S., visiting home for part of the summer, a mallard duck chose to lay her eggs in my parents’ front yard. Between the exterior of the house and a bare spot in a shrub, the hen plucked the downy feathers from her chest and created a soft and secret nest to incubate her six eggs.

The duck (whom we creatively named “Mommy Duck”) was never far from my daughter’s mind, so we’d check on her all throughout the day, tiptoeing across the rocks, and standing a respective distance away. There, we’d find her sitting on her eggs.

Hours and hours each day, the mother duck fiercely protected her clutch, silent, vigilant, only rotating herself every once in a while to ensure her eggs were all getting equally warm, and only leaving for short periods of time to look for food and water.

I felt oddly nervous for the hen. It seemed too late in the season to lay eggs, and with the unpredictable Midwestern weather, I wasn’t sure the eggs would even hatch. I wondered if the duck was nervous too or maybe instinct overrode any worst-case sencerios.

While we all obsessively waited for the sound of peeping chicks, my mom’s potted violets began blooming for the first time in years. The bright bursts of purple sitting in the middle of the kitchen table felt like a sign of hope—for the duck and her eggs and for all that’s happening in our world.

Long story short, the eggs did eventually hatch. Well, we assume they did. But not all of them, unfortunately. One morning we woke up to see an empty nest with three cracked-open eggshells, while the three other eggs remained unopened. The mother duck was nowhere in sight.

Gone was the dream of getting to watch six little eggs hatch in real time and cooing over fluffy yellow chicks. We had missed it.

We’ll never know what really happened, of course. But I like to imagine that, in the small hours of the morning, the mother duck tucked her three living chicks under her wing, made the risky journey to the lake a block away, and is now living a safe and quiet life on the shores.

Shortly after half of the eggs unceremoniously hatched, the internet was buzzing with new images of the deepest and sharpest photos of the universe anyone had ever seen: explosions of light and gasses, sparkling clusters of stars, and galaxies upon galaxies—all just a fraction of a fraction of the universe.

The abandoned, unhatched eggs were a painful reminder of how fragile life is (or as my dad, a farm boy, so bluntly reminded us: “That’s just nature!”) But the three chicks who did hatch, the violets that unexpectedly bloomed, and the universe’s immense vastness pointed to just how much life is unfolding before us. Isn’t it a miracle we’re here at all?

All these wonders—small and everyday, big and mysterious—are wild acts of defiance against a messy and crumbling world.

Today, the second to last morning before going back to Turkey, I decided to get up early and walk around my parents’ neighborhood one last time. The full moon was still hanging low in the sky and the sun was just beginning to rise, causing the clouds to appear in tufts of cotton candy pink. I thought of the photo of that tiny portion of space, “approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length by someone on the ground,” and felt goosebumps.

I came back home and I began to pack up our bags. We’ll get on the plane tomorrow, taking us an ocean away from my parents and family, but then we’ll walk into the arms of my husband, whom we haven’t seen in two months. Bittersweet feelings abound.

And yet I’m thankful for these reminders, the duck, the violets, the moon, and the vast universe. They all point to a God who pays attention, who sees and knows, who can make something beautiful out of this mess.

And I am reminded that even in the darkness, glimpses of light and life still push through.

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The Sparrow and the Evergreen Branch

I was sitting on the couch the other morning, coffee cup in hand, laptop open before me. The sun was just starting to come up while everyone else was still asleep. From the living room window, I could see part of the balcony off of our kitchen. It’s there, after each meal, where we shake out the crumbs from the mat under the high chair. The roof of our downstairs neighbor’s balcony extends several feet out beyond our balcony providing the perfect place for the aftermath of a toddler’s eating to land and the perfect place for birds to gather for a feast (much to our landlord’s chagrin). 

As I was sitting there on the couch listening to some lone dog bark relentlessly down the street and the splash of water on concrete from someone turning on a garden hose, I watched several sparrows start to flutter around the balcony, anticipating the remains of our breakfast. 

You guys are a little early, I think to myself. They’re so close to the living room window though, that I remain as still as possible, not wanting my shadow to scare them off. It’s in the small hours of the morning and I’m supposed to be writing, my one pocket of time in the day set aside to do this. But the little sparrows caught all my attention. 

Actually what was pushing its way into my mind that morning was the tension of wanting to be hopeful while also accepting reality, wondering if it’s possible to be an optimist and a realist at the same time.

I kept going back to this statistic I once read that less than one percent of all refugees in the world ever get resettled in a third country. Some eventually move back to their home country, research says, but the majority remain in limbo indefinitely. I don’t even know if that statistic is still accurate, but nevertheless, the odds are stacked against us.

Is limbo all we’ll ever know? Will we always feel this unsettled?

While the birds tweeted and fluttered, I noticed one sparrow in particular perched on the balcony’s wrought iron railing. While the other sparrows hunted around for rogue crumbs, prancing nervously on the roof, this one stood stock-still for several minutes. In its beak was an evergreen branch. 

I watched the little sparrow for a few moments, my mind thousands of miles away. Then somewhere a noise sounded, then a burst of wingbeats and the startled birds flew off to find sustunance elsewhere. The sparrow with the branch in its beak remained. 

Later that afternoon, I stood in the kitchen, propping open the door to the balcony because a spring storm was approaching. I couldn’t resist listening to the patter of rain and the continuous rolling of distant thunder while I made dinner.

While chopping up vegetables, the song “His Eye Is On the Sparrow” began to play on a random playlist I was listening to and I knew the whole thing from earlier that morning was significant. I thought of the sparrow and its evergreen branch, undisturbed by the surrounding clatter.

Hope for the future—for me, for my family, for my friends, for a hurting world—felt like a carrot dangling in front of my face, something just out of reach. Are my arms big enough to carry both hope for a future beyond here and acceptance of reality?

My toddler started pulling at my pant leg right then, demanding me to “dance-dance”, which meant to put on something upbeat (evidently dusty old hymns weren’t cutting it). I let the song end as I finished the last of the vegetables and wiped my hands on a towel. The storm was quickly making its way over our town and a clap of thunder filled the silence of the kitchen as I switched playlists.

She reached up her hands and I sat her on my hip as the first upbeat song began to play. We danced and swayed and giggled in the middle of the kitchen, keeping time to the drumming of the thunder and the beat of a Disney sing-a-long. The rain had picked up and the heavy clouds darkened the room, casting long shadows across the fridge. And there, in the middle of the storm, we touched our foreheads together, twirled in a circle, and laughed some more. 

As I’m typing this, I find myself wishing it was a dove instead that had perched on the balcony earlier that morning. What if it had held an olive branch in its beak? Doves and olive trees exist in this region of the world so it wouldn’t have been totally out of the ordinary. Throw in a rainbow and it would have been so perfectly Old Testament. 

But, in the end, it was a sparrow that showed up. A nondescript, insignificant, little brown bird that sat content on the railing, offering a branch from a tree that can endure even the harshest of weather. A reminder.

Is this how we live in the tension?  Perhaps we need only to go on—day by day, minute by minute, crumb by crumb, sustained by a Creator whose eye is on us, anchored in the promise that we are being taken care of.

We had eggs for breakfast this morning, so no crumbs to shake out. But I felt bad for the birds who were back again, fluttering around our balcony, assuming they’d find some food. In between sweeping the floor and running the dishwasher, I popped a piece of bread into the toaster. 

Stepping out to the edge of the balcony, taking care not to let the screen door slam shut behind me and scare off the poor birds, I crumbled up the toasted bread in my hands and tossed it over the railing.

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May We All Be Snack Bringers

The outside of the immigration building is a foreboding place, all cold concrete and few windows. The inside doesn’t offer much more with its stark walls and rows of plastic chairs connected and fixed to the tiled floor. There are serious men in mustaches and suits who hold the power to determine the future with a simple yes or no. The only decor present is a tacked-up sign stating now-outdated Covid precautions in Turkish, Arabic, and Farsi. Depending on the day, crowds of people line up to scan their fingerprints, a way for the government to keep track of its four million refugees.

On this particular day, my husband is here among the crowd, knees bouncing in one of those plastic chairs, waiting for one of those mustached men to call his name, signaling his turn to enter the office. Sitting along the wall are groups of newly arrived Afghans—some alone, some with their family. Men shuffle and reshuffle papers. Women hold infants wrapped in thick fleece blankets. Collective weariness bounces off the walls from those here for the same reason: trying to find safety and stability in the middle of unimaginable hardship.

Tensions are running high and there’s a commotion between a group in the room next door. Several voices rise in a wave of misunderstanding then settle moments later. Trying to calm his nerves, my husband focuses instead on the three small Afghan boys next to him. The youngest, not more than a toddler, pulls and pulls at his mother’s arm, trying to get her attention. The older two squirm in their seats and kick at each other’s shins. All three are fussy, no doubt tired of spending the morning sitting in an immigration office, or—maybe more so—tired from the confusion of wondering where home is.

Perhaps it was because my husband is also one of three brothers or perhaps he saw himself in the parents, worry furrowing at the father’s brow, uncertainty clouding the mother’s eyes. After all, he too carries the weight of displacement on his back. He too wonders where home is. But an idea sparks, and without overthinking it, he decides to take a chance at missing his name being called, and sprints across the street to a corner convenience store.

“I wish I had the power to do something more than that though,” he tells me that night, the family still on his mind. He describes the reaction from the parents as he handed over a plastic bag filled with snacks, relief stretching across their faces now that their squirmy children were preoccupied at last, and the shy smiles from the boys as they ripped open small bags of pretzels and cookies. He speaks to them in Farsi, his native language, and they respond in Dari, their native language.

“But it didn’t change anything,” my husband continues. And I understand where he’s coming from. Giving some snacks to three boys didn’t change their situation. It didn’t grant them asylum or give them a place to call home. It didn’t wipe away years of trauma or rebuild governments.

Do you also feel like your little portions can’t possibly be enough? Do you feel the ambiguous grief over the world right now, too? Oftentimes, this powerlessness to do anything big can act like a grip stopping us from doing anything at all.

“But what you did was still important.” I’m earnest in telling him this because he did it. He didn’t overthink the seemingly unremarkable. Despite carrying the same type of baggage as that family, bringing them snacks was a way to take up arms and fight back against the injustice they were all experiencing, even if he didn’t realize it in the moment.

There is something holy in taking that one small step and entering into another person’s story. It may not be as spectacular as enacting policies or granting visas but it is meaningful.

Quietly doing the next simple and necessary thing can be the light that pushes back the darkness for our neighbors. Sending flowers, offering a ride, writing an encouraging text, baking banana bread, saying I love you, bringing the snacks. It all matters. It is all holy.

These small things are the only things to do when we don’t know what to do. It may not feel like enough, but in the great magic and mystery of God, our little portions can be more than enough for someone else, as my husband unknowingly taught me that day.

And so, may the love of a God who sees all our stories transform us to see others. May we tune our hearts to our neighbors who could use a helping hand. May we step into their story—for there is no such thing as other people’s neighbors. Doing so declares God’s goodness and power even when everything around us says otherwise.

Shortly after the day at the immigration office, I came across a few lines of a prayer commonly attributed to Salvadorian Bishop Oscar Romero, who was martyred for his faith:

We cannot do everything,
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.”*

May we look for ways to be snack bringers today. One small step along the way, the next right thing—it is holy work.

*Read the rest of “Prophets of a Future Not Our Own” here.
Photo by Mariia Forest on Unsplash

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El-Roi at the Airport

Mashed-up Cheerios are dribbling down my shirt. My daughter Esther is in an infant carrier strapped to my chest as I push the metal luggage cart I paid $7 for up and down the baggage check-in line. Two overweight suitcases (that I’ll soon pay $80 for although I don’t know it yet), a stroller, and a carry-on bag are piled precariously on top of each other. There’s a giant sweat spot forming on the front of my shirt where my 25-pound child sits.

The Turkish Airlines check-in agent takes my bags and my credit card and tags the stroller and the carry-on. My daughter is getting antsy in the carrier and I know the Cheerios aren’t cutting it as a meal. I bounce up and down at the desk waiting for the agent to come back with my card and passport. I sweat some more. Maybe if I look as desperate as I feel, I’ll get a pity-upgrade to business class. She hands me back my passport with a ticket to the U.S. tucked inside.

After getting checked in, I need to regroup and move my daughter from my carrier to the stroller despite her protests. We’re both hot and hungry. People from all over bustle by, lost in their own worlds. I get her situated and pull at the front of my shirt to circulate some air. It’s hot. Did I mention that? Also, I’m alone with a baby traveling 6,000 miles. 

He should be here, too is all that bounces through my mind as I push the stroller back and forth. I shouldn’t have to do this by myself. I’m overwhelmed but trying to keep it together until we’re home. Home. What a strange concept. I have two, each an ocean apart from the other. 

We’ve got time before we need to head through security (another big ordeal but again I don’t know this yet). So I take a moment to breathe and crouch down to look at Esther, really look at her. What a crazy life you and I have. Who would have thought? 

I think of my husband, who’s displaced, carrying the title of ‘refugee’ for the last eight years. My husband, who should be here, too—who wants so badly to be here, toobut cannot due to the country listed on his expired passport, due to the visa he doesn’t have. 

I think of how so much of the world is experiencing displacement, how so many people are finding themselves pushed out of their familiar, forced to navigate new and disorientating places.

Esther is now munching on a Lara bar I had packed for myself but it was the easiest thing to reach for in the diaper bag. She looks at me from her stroller. She doesn’t know the layers blanketing this trip, the conflicting emotions threading through my mind. She doesn’t know a life of displacement like her dad does. She only knows her two homes. She’s lucky in that way.

We look at each other as people continue to flow around us.

…then she snorts. 

Yes, like a pig. And laughs, her mouth open wide showing all her teeth and the bits of fig. She’s trying to get me to laugh, too. I realize this and I realize that maybe she does understand. Maybe I underestimate her sometimes—her emotional depths, her perception, her empathy. Maybe she holds more than I realize.

We laugh together. We’ll get through this together. 

***

On the other end of the flight, in another airport, in another country, 14 hours later, we survive. We get through it, relatively unscathed, only slightly limping. 

We land in Chicago where we need to reclaim our luggage before a night in a hotel and a quick plane ride to my family’s home in North Dakota. 

The orchestral sounds of beeps and dings and announcements over speakers clash with the sleepy movement of passengers disembarking our transatlantic flight. Altogether, we look like a yawning river making our way to our bags amidst the bright lights and sounds of the airport. For us, it’s the middle of the night (I think). But here, the day is well underway. 

A woman sprints over, leaving her two school-aged boys at the baggage carousel.

“You look like you could use some help.” Before I can respond, she lugs my suitcase onto the metal luggage cart. Do I look like I need help? Is my hot mess that obvious? I try in vain to help her but my daughter is once again strapped to me and the folded stroller she refused to sit in is under my arm. Jet lag and weariness make their way somewhere onto my body, too. 

The woman readjusts my carry-on bag and stroller as they balance precariously on top of the suitcase. I’m struck by how intimate her act is: physically touching my belongings, taking a moment out of her traveling to tangibly help a stranger.

I give her a nod of thanks but before she leaves she makes sure to catch my eye and says, “What you’re doing is really brave, you know?”

Those last two words—you know—were spoken not so much as a question but in a way that made me think this stranger wanted me to make sure she saw the work I was doing.

It’s true, there are no trophies for doing the things required in parenthood. But traveling alone with a baby is hard. Traveling alone internationally with a baby is harder. Traveling alone internationally with a baby during a pandemic while your husband has yet to receive a visa is on an entirely different level of hard. A tiny trophy would maybe be nice. The woman’s unprompted but wholly appreciated kindness did just that. 

The quick interaction in the O’Hare airport reminded me of one of the Old Testament names for God: El-Roi—the God who sees. It was spoken by Hagar, the first and possibly only person in Scripture to speak to God by name. It was in Hagar’s lowest, most sorrowful place where she has a true encounter with God and discovers she is not alone. 

Like my daughter who made me laugh 14 hours earlier, the woman who helped me with my bags at the airport didn’t know the weight sitting on my shoulders. She didn’t know how he should be here, too chanted in my mind as I maneuvered airplane bathrooms and passport control lines and x-ray machines—alone. She didn’t know anything about the indignation we have felt when facing injustice square in the face, the powerlessness to change anything for our family. But she chose to enter into my story and help anyway.

Here’s what I learned while crossing the Atlantic by myself with a baby in tow: El-Roi is found in a stranger’s simple act of kindness. El-Roi is found in the silly baby breaking the tension. El-Roi is found in the wilderness, where things seem impossible and all seems lost.

And this: the unseen work matters. The grief no one sees matters. The invisible things we carry matter. They are seen and known by a God who fiercely loves us, a God who can take those moments and redeem them.

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How Angels Talk

“Do you think angels talk to babies?”

Our daughter, Esther, twirls around us in her flannel Christmas nightgown, the hem now inches above the tops of her feet, a measuring stick of sorts, showing how much she’s grown since December. We sit on the floor next to her as she climbs over our legs to get to the mirror. She sings a song to herself as she twirls, her way of winding down for the night. My husband’s question to me was prompted by something I had read on Instagram, about a baby boy who had pointed to the corner of the ceiling above him one day while he was nursing. “Hot-hot-hot,” he had exclaimed to his mother, who concluded that he must have been seeing something supernatural right there in the nursery.

On New Year’s Eve, we say a half-hearted prayer for our dinner before silently picking up our forks. It was a quick mumble, really. We were soul-weary, exhausted from the fact that another year had passed without any movement in my husband’s immigration case, exhausted over all the horrors in the world, another year of uncertainty ahead. Rote words, spoken a thousand times over slid out of our mouths and onto our plates.

But Esther stopped us twice during that meal, holding out her hands to us, saying “Pray,” so definitively, like a command. She knew our first prayer wasn’t sincere, standing on the precipice of a new year. Her outstretched arms and pointed look told us to pause, to exhale, and to speak out our hopes for the coming twelve months, even if it hurt, even if hope felt just out of reach.

The next day, New Year’s Day, we pulled into an empty town square after running errands all morning so Esther could run around a little. The streets were quiet, everyone sleeping off the prior night’s festivities. Here in the square, hundreds of pigeons were swooping from the tops of the corrugated roofs down to the cobblestone lot where we stood.

We watched as a man came out from one of the shops with a cigarette hanging from his mouth and a large scoop in his hand. He scattered corn and seeds onto the ground—breakfast for the birds. Once he was safely back inside his shop, the pigeons flew down, as if their leader gave a silent signal. Only the beating of their wings made any sound. We stood there quietly, mesmerized by their swirling, synchronized patterns, like a sheet of silk, so close their wings almost grazing the tops of our heads.

Peace was the only word that came to mind.

Do angels talk to babies? I’m not sure, but today she’s pulling me up from the couch where I’ve been sitting, swiping photo after photo of tanks crossing borders, a bombed-out apartment building, grandsons leading grandmothers away from homes, believers kneeling together in prayer, their own uncertainty palpable through the screen. I can’t stop seeing my own baby in every refugee family, can’t stop clicking through videos of fathers saying goodbye to their toddlers and makeshift NICU wards in bomb shelters—everything unfolding right behind my screen, everything happening not more than a 2-hour plane ride north. War in real-time.

Esther pulls and pulls at my arm until I surrender to her. She hands me a burp cloth my mom had made when she was born, pastel fleece with sheep jumping across. Esther knows I know the drill; no instructions are needed. The music is loud in the living room, booming from my husband’s iPhone, and the three of us sing and twirl the fabric in the air.

Does she know what’s happening in the world? Dancing, she seems to tell us, is a respite from the heaviness.

“And if angels do talk to babies,” my husband continued that night on the floor, “maybe we can pass on a message from her to them.” 

And then later today I watch her as we walk down our road to the corner grocery store.

Abr!” she points to the dark, full clouds rolling in from the west, using the Farsi word for cloud. “Abi!” She points to the east, the Farsi word for blue, the one color she so confidently knows. The sky is split in half, a crack down the middle as a storm encroaches on our town. The wind picks up into mighty 20 mph gusts as we walk, blowing our hair across our faces in every direction. We bow our bodies forward against the wind.  

But then Esther stops mid-track just before rounding the corner and rips off her hat (a miracle it’s stayed on this far). She then rips out the clip in her hair and for a second I think she’s about to rip off her jacket, too. What will the neighborhood aunties think? That poor foreign lady, letting her toddler run around near-naked in February? But instead, she surprises me and raises her hands above her head, palms facing the heavens. She closes her eyes as the wind swirls around her, delight spreading across her face. In this dry, arid region of the world, we rarely experience weather like this.

She stands like that for a few moments, her smile unfading, palms spread wide, like she’s touching something. And I imagine her as a worshipper, standing in the rows of a church, holy music flowing through her, fervent in spirit. 

And yet I don’t have to imagine it. That’s what is happening right here in front of me—something holy.

Do angels talk to babies? I can’t answer that. But I do know that we are all more intricately connected than we realize, and life is so much more delicate than we can comprehend as if this decade hasn’t taught us that yet. 

We change diapers and read the headlines. We send a text asking Can you get milk on the way home? and then Are we safe here? What will happen next? We cook dinner and say tired prayers and cuddle toddlers to sleep, hair sweaty and matted against our chests. We breathe in and out, grasping at the hope that seems to unspool a little more each day.

But all these moments are connected in a jumbled-up, messy sort of way. I’m sure they are. That spool of hope? It’s a holy thread woven through all the mundane and all the chaos, through all of us.

And perhaps that’s how—not angels—but God speaks to us: through babies who seem to be more perceptive than we give them credit for, in our neighbor who stops us outside her door to hand us a bag of her green apples, the Afghan refugee who gives us a secret discount on garlic and potatoes, the murmuration of birds and the man who feeds them, in the awkward way we try to lead our children through the events of this world, in reassuring texts, and heads bowed together long after the sun has set.

That’s where the scent of God lies—through neighbors and toddlers, headlines and news reports, in the creation of birds, through you and me.

And if we stop to take notice of how the wind blows through our fingers and how the birds fly in tandem with each other, then that spool of thread will wind back up. Hope will return.

In all of life’s suffering and joy and mess, God is near. That much I know.