Our Story

Not Like We Imagined

Our first evening away from our then two-month-old, my husband and I sat on the rooftop of a local restaurant eating lamb kabob and drinking ayran, a traditional yogurt drink, and texting back and forth with my mom who was visiting us in Turkey for the summer and babysitting that night.

Call us easily pleased or starving for entertainment outside of nursery rhymes, but we couldn’t take our eyes off the sky. It was dusk and, almost as if on cue, hundreds of birds began to stream through the air from the west and take cover among the trees along the river bank. Black dots punctuated the sky, moving together with one mind, one shape-shifting cloud after another. Like airplanes smoothly landing on the runway, each giant flock congregated in the roost, seeking shelter for the night. A cacophony of chirps and squawks and beating wings could be heard above the restaurant’s music.

“Look what God created,” my husband murmured, always mesmerized by nature, especially birds. It’s their statelessness I think, their freedom not hindered by borders, their ability to pick up and move at the first sign of the changing season—something that, for him, is just out of reach.

First, it was the travel ban, which barred millions of individuals from seven Muslim-majority countries from ever entering the United States (still in effect to this day), sweeping my husband and his family along with it. One year of teaching overseas turned into six for me, waiting for the green light to leave. Six years of missed holidays and birthdays and life continuing at home. Six years of being at the mercy of ever-changing immigration policies and borders shutting down.

Then it was a pandemic and a country that didn’t handle it well. A different type of travel ban was put into place. U.S. embassies around the world began to shut down, effectively stopping almost all immigration, like a large locomotive coming to a screeching halt.

We’ve been hard-pressed every direction we turn and buried up to our chins with uncertainty. With our family spread out over three different continents, the future is looking foggier than ever.

Poet Samiya Bashir describes 2020 this way: “This year threads its needle between robbery and gift; horror and beauty. Global trauma and lovely surprises.” Can you relate? Does everything look a little foggy for you too? The last several months have been a delicate balance of holding many different things at one time. We didn’t ask for this. We didn’t imagine it to be like this.

I write a lot on here about finding joy and hope in hard places. The former is easier to define, but the latter, if I’m being honest, is a little more difficult. The definition of hope seems to always roll around on my tongue like hard candy and if I spit it out to look at it, I still don’t know what it is.

But I saw this question posed on Instagram the other day: What does hope smell like? All sorts of answers poured in from hundreds of people. Freshly brewed coffee, a rainstorm, chocolate, newborn babies, cookies baking. Trying to define hope by relating it to one of our senses puts a different spin on it. Suddenly, the unidentifiable candy doesn’t seem so mysterious anymore.

Just a few days after our daughter was born, we got a call from her pediatrician late at night urging us to bring her in as early as possible the following morning. We spent the next 24 hours in a cramped hospital room as she laid blindfolded under UV lights, black-out curtains drawn tight and, in true Middle Eastern fashion, heat pumping out of the vents despite the mild June weather. My still swollen feet and aching abdomen incision were made worse by sitting on the uncomfortable couch in the darkened room for an entire day and night.

When we were discharged the following day (our daughter was fine, by the way. The lights did their magic and her bilirubin levels were back to normal.), we walked out of the hospital doors and had to squint the sun was shining so brightly. My husband and I gulped down the cool air as we walked to the car, healthy baby in tow. The afternoon sun radiated onto our faces and outstretched arms. We rolled down the windows and stuck our hands out the entire hour’s drive back home, so grateful to be out of the dark hospital room and basking in the fresh air.

That’s the smell of hope: when you’ve been indoors for so long and are finally able to go outside. It’s that first breath of fresh air, cool and cleansing. It’s the smell of earth, dampness, soil, life. It’s knowing the sun is shining brightly just beyond the darkened room.

Back to the birds. They continued to streak across the sky that night while we were on the rooftop, something innate telling them the season will be changing soon. Despite the hottest part of the day still being in the triple digits (Lord, help us), there was still the tiniest, quietest whisper of something new happening, the ending of one thing and the beginning of another. It was that hint of light after coming out of the darkness, the promise of a fresh breath of air.

We turned back to the meal in front of us and fawned over pictures of our sleeping baby sent by my mom. We talked about those last six years and all that had happened and all that hadn’t happened—the good, the bad, and the unimagined.

You’re supposed to write about what you know. I don’t know a lot about what’s happening now or what will happen in the future. I wish there was a different ending—a victory ending—but that hasn’t happened. We are still here, waiting, standing on the threshold of two things. I wouldn’t have imagined life would be like this. But one thing I know is that there is peace in letting go. There is power in having an open hand. We may still be in the darkened room draped in blackout curtains but just on the other side of the wall, there is sunshine. Hope is in the unexpected and unimagined—whatever that smells like.

Our Story

If It Is Darkness We Are Having, Let It Be Extravagant

Sometime after the call to prayer but before any hints of daybreak, I feel her hiccup for the first time. The sliver of moon still glows and so does the green neon sign from the bakery across the street. If the windows were open, the smell of fresh-baked Turkish bread would be floating through.

What a wild thing to feel life moving inside your body.

In the quiet darkness of the not-yet morning and in the warmth of my bed, I rest my hand on the roundness of my abdomen, feeling the pulsing thumps. I reach over to tap my husband awake but his deep, slow breaths remind me it’s scarcely 6:30am and I decide to wait.

He had spent all last evening with his head next to my stomach waiting to feel the baby move against his cheek as he murmured a poetic string of Farsi to her into my shirt. “Is it normal?” he looks up, concerned he hadn’t yet felt anything. “It’s because your voice is calming her to sleep,” I reassure him.

It is a certain type of joy to grow any kind of life. It’s like spotting a wildflower bursting through the cracks of dried up dirt along the road. When life finds a way to breakthrough, it’s a beacon of hope, beauty shimmering in the hard places.

 ***

There’s a saying from some of the experts in the writing world that says to “write from your scars, not your wounds.” The idea behind this being that there is an importance in giving distance to our emotions and experiences before we share. It is vital to respect the process we must go through before broadcasting it to a wider audience.

But what if we don’t have the privilege to write from our scars?

We are still very much in the hard stuff of life right now. It’s unclear when the new skin will start to form over the hurts and the healing will begin. But perhaps wounds and scarring and hurts and healing don’t need to occur independently from each other. Perhaps it is sacred and important when writing transpires from each place side-by-side. Maybe it is good to hold space for both.

This blog is a place where I write from my wounds, despite what the writing experts say. I do it because I don’t have the luxury to wait for a scab to grow. The things posted here are raw. It’s what we are feeling in real-time. But a tension that comes when drafting each essay is to over-spiritualize the wounds, to end each piece with: this was a hard thing but then we had faith and God changed it! Because God hasn’t changed it. Because I haven’t gotten the thing for which I have longed. Because there is no guarantee I will get the thing for which I have longed. But there is merit to sharing the waiting and the wrestling and the wounds, even while prayers go unanswered.

Paired with the tension of choosing what to share publically and what not to share, is the juggling of both the difficulties and the little joys in our life – that little flower growing against all odds amidst the dust and dirt.

It’s an inhale of devastating news where the course of our lives takes a neck-breaking turn. It’s an exhale of seeing two pink lines appear on a pregnancy test. It’s in this space where joy and sorrow share the same breath. It’s in buying little white onesies and putting together a crib coupled with long drives late at night with tears as our only prayer because the edges of our world are starting to unravel. The blooming of life and the burying of dreams dance together.

***

The world’s weariness is powerful. It takes strength to push against it and shoulder the door closed. But when it slinks through the bottom gap of the frame and unpacks its bags, hope sits expectantly in the shadows.

Part of what makes hope so elusive is that it must be fought for. It isn’t easy or natural to hold on to it in the midst of difficulties because it slips and slides out of our hands as darkness screams louder.

But with the tiny joy of life growing and forming, hope becomes a beacon pointing us ahead, a lighthouse guiding the way forward.

As my belly swells a little rounder with each passing week, and our dresser drawers fill with blankets and pacifiers and diapers, here is what hope is: it’s looking onward. It’s clinging to that rope — our one and only lifeline — when we can’t grip the edge of the cliff any longer. It’s resting in that tension and believing there are always miracles tucked away in the darkness.

At the beginning of January, there’s always an uptick in blog posts and photo captions about choosing a word for the new year. But how does one determine a word that encapsulates the spirit of the next 365 days? We don’t have the luxury to plan for the next rotation around the sun – or even the next month. We live in the midst of small seasons, standing at the threshold of the ever-changing day-to-day and are face-to-face with life’s chaos. It’s unclear what tomorrow will be or how things will end.

We wish we had been given a tidier story, one where joy and sorrow don’t hold hands, one where dreams always bloom and darkness stays away. I wish we could look down at the healed over scars and think of all the lessons and reflections and gems we gleaned. But this story is messy and we still only have wounds. Joy and sorrow move in tandem. We can’t keep the darkness from entering our lives, but we can hold fast to hope. We can search for joys glistening through the world’s weariness. And I’ll still share here, despite the lack of scars, because it’s important and beautiful and holy to testify of God’s goodness in the midst of waiting for the coming healing.

I didn’t choose a word for the new year because I have no idea what it has in store. But I do know it’s bringing hope. It’s ushering in joy. It’s bringing quiet miracles like the rhythmic hiccups in my stomach in the early hours of the morning.

A baby. A wildflower. Life. It is joy untarnished by the darkness. And, in this new year, may it all be extravagant.

 

 

Title taken from Jane Kenyon’s “Taking Down the Tree” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 2005 by the Estate of Jane Kenyon.
Our Story

The Defiant Act of Putting Down Roots

As I sit here writing this, I’m on our balcony off the kitchen. The school kids are breaking for recess and kicking around a soccer ball, their shrieks coming from the middle school across the street. I have laundry pinned to the line – linens and pillowcases. The October noontime sun is strong enough to dry them quickly. The fall weather has come to Turkey but the concrete sides of our apartment building still radiate the heat of the day.

This month marks five years of living in Turkey.

In 2014, I boarded a plane with a one-way ticket in hand, leaving behind the flat prairie lands of the upper Midwest, my family, friends, and most of what was familiar to me, and traded it for dry arid weather, a new community, and something called fairy chimneys (yeah, I didn’t know what they were either). What was supposed to be a one-year teaching gig in a foreign country turned into five.

~~~

It’s weird and insignificant but one of the things I get joy from is looking at the weekly ad circulars with my husband. My mom sends them to us tucked into her care packages. It’s a silly ritual the two of us do together because it reminds us of home. Flipping through the Target and Kohls ads that have traveled across the ocean is a glimpse into life beyond Turkey. It means looking forward. Planning. We do the same with homes on Zillow and things on Facebook Marketplace. It shows that one day we might build a life outside of Turkey.

To us, it’s a strange little symbol of hope.

But what if we cannot, at least for the foreseeable future, make a home in the US? What if, due to politics and bans and greed and misplaced fear, we cannot leave where we are? How do we put down roots when we don’t want to?

Making a home amid waiting is tricky.

Look at this way: If I invited you to sit in a chair pulled up to a desk for the next six hours, what would you do? You have six hours so you’d probably open your laptop and get some work done. Maybe answer some emails. Watch a movie, work on a hobby, read a book. You’d be productive.

What if instead, I invited you to sit in a chair pulled up to a desk for the next five minutes? What would you do? It’s just five minutes so you’d probably stare at the wall. Drum your fingers on the desk. Gaze out the window. You’d wait.

Making a home in the midst of waiting is tricky.

Then what if, after the five minutes were up, I came back and said, “Sorry, sorry. Please sit for just five more minutes.” You’d wait again. What’re another five minutes? And again. And again. Until those five minutes have turned into six wasted hours.

It’s hard to make a home when you’re in prolonged waiting. It makes the heart sick.

~~~

Marrying someone who has refugee status meant finding myself thrown amid bureaucratic limbo. It meant being at the bend and will of politicians who see others like pieces on a chessboard – to be moved, jumped over, kicked off – for their own advantage. The powers-that-be forced us to hit the pause button on life, to waste those five minutes over and over again, to live indefinitely in the temporary.

We don’t feel like we have much control over anything.

But what if there was one thing we could control? What if we could shift our mindset from a temporary-bags packed-we’ll be gone in five minutes- way of thinking to something more settled? Solid? Home?

Marrying someone who has refugee status meant finding myself thrown in the midst of bureaucratic limbo. It meant being at the bend and will of politicians who see others like pieces on a chessboard – to be moved, jumped over, kicked off – for their own advantage.

What if deciding to make a home right where we are was the ultimate act of defiance against the forces keeping us in the temporary? What if deciding to put down our suitcases and put down roots right where we are meant we have some semblance of control over our lives?

There’s a certain freedom in realizing we have a choice to make our current place home.  It won’t be forever, but for now. My arms are big enough to hold on tightly to our dream of one day moving to the US in one arm and cultivate rootedness in the other – even if it’s temporary.

Are you in a place where you are reluctant to put down roots?

Trying to make a home while living in a state of limbo is a messy thing. But we can thrive, strive, and take our unwanted situation and build on it. We can take the dirt surrounding us and press our roots down deep, just a little. And maybe something wonderful will grow.

~~~

Home for me is pretty ambiguous these days. It’s transient. But being in this state of prolonged uncertainty for so many years has widened my definition:

Home is adding one more book to an already packed bookshelf.
Home is nailing picture frames to the wall (when we’re sure the landlords are gone).
Home is watching the potted plants grow and bloom.
Home is the two little painted wooden houses dangling on a string in the kitchen.
Home is a soft place to land. Safe, secure, welcoming.
Home is temporary; it changes, and flows, and exists through everything.

How would you define “home”?

Putting down roots in a place I don’t want to is sanctifying me, preparing me, and cultivating fruit in me. God’s not wasting this time. I don’t want to either.

I thought about trying to tie this all back to something about how, for believers, the earth is not our home because our eternal home is in heaven *insert cute little bible verse here*. But honestly? That’s not where my heart is at the moment. It isn’t easy to decide to let the roots start growing. It isn’t easy to juggle both the present and the future.

I still have that itch to get out of here. Believe me, Turkey is not home. But if I don’t embrace where I am right now and trust God is carefully holding my dreams, I’ll be terribly itchy.

So how do I embrace a life that is forcing us to be stationary? Maybe it has to do with the little things, like putting up photos, organizing knickknacks, and planting gardens. I don’t really know for sure yet. But I know for the health of my soul and sanity I need to keep pressing deep into the dirt and letting the roots grow, just a little, just for a while. I’m sure we will figure it out…right after we check Zillow one more time.

 

Our Story

Embracing the Poetry of Fruit Picking and Other Ordinary Summer Things

On her tiptoes, she reaches high above her head and grasps onto a branch heavy with mulberries. Pulling down the tree limb, my mother-in-law picks off a handful of the fruit and reaches her arm behind herself to offer them to us, her eyes staying fixated on the tree. She searches for more ripe berries before moving on to the neighboring apricot tree.

“Are you sure this is okay?” I whisper, peeking into the yard to check for residents before popping a mulberry into my mouth. The juice leaves behind a dark purple stain on my fingertips and lips.

My husband swears to me this is a perfectly ordinary thing to do in Turkey – picking the fruit off the trees that drape over the stone walls of a stranger’s home. He splits an apricot in half and offers it to me. I stealthily pop it into my mouth.

Down the street, a group of village ladies turns the corner, chattering among themselves and dressed in classic Turkish granny attire: floral patterned baggy pants connected at the ankles, contrasting floral headscarves knotted under their chins, crocheted too-hot-for-summer-weather vests, and wooden walking canes. Armed with plastic bags, they pause on the road in front of a house and begin plucking grape leaves entwined around a metal arbor gate.

Following my gaze towards the women, my husband raises his eyebrows at me and gives me a knowing smile, a vindication of our participation in illicit fruit picking.  See? I told you.

Summer in Turkey opens its arms to a more meditative approach to the ordinary stuff of life. It invites us to pay fierce attention to everyday tasks: hanging dripping laundry on the clothesline, meeting family and friends for picnics by the river, the cool breeze whispering through the olive branches, and, of course, picking fresh fruit off of trees.

God oftentimes seems loudest in the summer season, when the world around us is bursting into life. We see the wild generosity of our Father as he splashes across the canvas vibrant emerald green, coral, turmeric, and sky blue.

But sometimes the shock of a screaming summer can be overwhelming. What if it’s hard to find joy in the summer? What if God speaks but it’s not the words we’re wanting to hear?

Beginning with our decision to move homes last November, my husband and I have felt God placing a different call in our hearts: Be here. Live here. Forget the timeline. Trust me here. 

Shifting our mindset from the short term – suitcases just an arm’s length away, eating off rented dishware, and one foot out of Turkey, ready to leave at a moments notice – to the long-term – moving homes, potting flowers, investing in furniture, planting our feet on the ground – is hard.

When all we want to do is to just get out of Turkey, when all our prayers are shouting, “How long more?”, God is asking us to embrace this season.

So we do, begrudgingly.

Shoulders slack. Feet dragging.

It turns out, faith doesn’t always come easily in the summer season.

With the refugee numbers predicted to be set at zero and my husband’s case changing from “processing” to “suspended”, we’re stumbling out of the loss and surrender winter brought, our eyes squinting into the blazing Turkish sun. We’re still holding the heavy silence of the colder months, the cycle of letting go and waiting, letting go and waiting. The summer is too hot and too loud.

Be here. Live here. Forget the timeline. Trust me here. 

This is a season to yield to summer’s embrace, to wrap our arms around the frenzied kindness and grace of God.

So we find the poetry in picking fruit, in hanging laundry, in learning how to make Turkish coffee from the downstairs neighbors, in the smell of the wet grass by the river, in the chopping up of vegetables fresh from the garden, in getting a Turkish driver’s license, and planning to start a family.

Maybe stillness and simplicity is God’s voice to us. Maybe his scent is the ordinary things of life: the sharp crunch of fresh dill, charcoal from chicken cooking on a mangal, cigarettes and black tea from the Turkish grandpas gathered outside the tea shops. Maybe God’s inviting us to slow down, seek him, embrace, surrender.

I don’t know when we’ll leave Turkey. I trust God has a plan. I hold fast to that. It’s a simple dream I constantly nurse in the palm of my hands. It’s still the heartbeat of my prayers.

But it’s summer. The sun blazes in cloudless skies. The magpies sing outside my bedroom window. The sunflowers in my neighbor’s yard raise their faces to the heavens. There’s fruit to pick and fingers to stain.

I gather the apricots hanging off the tree into my motorbike helmet, filling it to the top with the little yellow fruit. The village ladies have moved on, their plastic bags bursting with grape leaves, ready to make fresh dolma. My husband throws into his mouth one more mulberry and we walk back home. For dessert later that night, we enjoy sweet apricot crisp.

Be here. Live here. Forget the timeline. Trust me here. 

Our Story

The Unanswered Question

“How long more?”

My husband asks this question enough times for me to know he’s not wondering how long our walk will take to get to the river. We’ve done it a million times. He’s asking me how much longer we’ll be staying here in Turkey, how much longer we have to wait for our lives to move forward, and how much longer we have to live at the mercy of politicians’ decisions.

“Merhaba. Merhaba.” We murmur a Turkish greeting as we pass by a small boy kicking a beat-up soccer ball in his front yard, then to a woman peering around the corner, pinning white shirts to a line. She nods her head at us.

How long more?

Sometimes he asks this question pointedly, squaring his face with mine and expecting a specific answer like I hold some magic key to that knowledge. This time though, his question is more like a statement, a phrase that is ever pulsing in his veins. Three words syncopated with our footsteps on the street, coming up and out from within him, like a great, heaving sigh.

I still don’t respond to him as we continue walking down the dusty cobblestone street, fruit trees bursting over us, the river sparkling up ahead, a pregnant cat sauntering nearby. But I lean in close, matching my walking pace to his, and squeeze his hand. I may not have an answer but I hope this gesture conveys my solidarity and dissolves the not-question still hanging in the air. Hey, whatever’s going to happen, we’re in this together.

Closer to the river now we see my mother-in-law at the water’s edge, throwing day-old scraps of bread to the ducks. She waves us over and points into the water. “Babies!” she exclaims. We look over the fence at four fuzzy ducklings. Watching her unwrap more bread from her purse — an extra loaf she bought at the bakery just for the ducks — I’m struck by how alone she is here. My husband, too. Strangers in this country, fleeing their homes because of the God they believe in. They didn’t choose to be here. And they can’t choose to leave. They ache over the burden of carrying a title they did not want: refugee.

It’s hard to describe to other people all the subtleties of how our lives are impacted by the travel ban, continually phrasing and rephrasing it. I tend to craft my words carefully, like how my mother-in-law chooses her fruit and vegetables at the Friday bazaar. Slowly. Picking up each one, examining it, smelling it, pressing it, before the finality of placing it gingerly into her sack or back on the stand.

It’s difficult to explain what we’re going through when well-meaning people touch us on the arm in the middle of the coffee line at church. “How’s your heart?” they say gently with a tilt of their head, twenty other people around us, all stretching out their hands to grab a sugar packet or spoon.

We don’t want to be here, is what I want to tell them. This waiting on the edge of our seats is making our hearts sick. Do they know of the arbitrary dates we give ourselves to be in the US? Maybe by his birthday, this summer, her wedding in the fall. And as each date passes we feel the dragging drop of disappointment.

How long more?

He cannot even leave the province without a permission slip, quickly constricting his world to a 90-mile radius. I want to tell them of his interactions with condescending police officers, blase and vague in their answers. Each time the phone rings our bodies stiffen and we stop what we’re doing. Maybe this is the call. The one we’ve been waiting for.

How long more?

There’s the suffocating pressure coming from all sides, knowing he cannot go back, knowing this present country is growing tired of the strain of the millions here just like him. And the country he dreams of going to is so quick to turn its back, put up a wall, and slap a derogative label over people with his shade of skin.

How long more?

With the buzz of post-church conversation all around us, it’s exhausting to try to craft my thoughts before the attention quickly shifts to something else. So, like the precious fruit, I put it back on the stand and instead deliver a blithe reply.

I see the question resurface in his eyes as he stares out at the river. I help my mother-in-law unpack the steaming lunch she brought. We set out the fresh village bread and a tea thermos — a staple at any Persian picnic — and bow our heads in prayer. She prays in Farsi for God to have mercy on us, to hear us, to help us to trust him. I look up at the two heads bent.

God, how long more?