Our Story, Uncategorized

Weary World Rejoice

This time of year the sun dawdles just below the horizon, drowsily rising at 8 AM. It hangs in the sky, yawning and stretching and covering itself with a blanket of clouds, its rays dim and hidden, only to slump below the horizon again at 5 PM.

An hour before the winter sunrise, I pad into the living room, the floor cool beneath my feet, fumbling for my slippers in the dark. There’s a baby on my hip and a portable space heater on the other. For the past week my daughter has consistently woken up past 7 AM (I’m totally jinxing this just by writing it out, I know), sleeping in for me but too early for the sun. Anxious for any semblance of a routine with a 6-month-old, I make it a point to plug in the Christmas tree lights first thing every morning. The string of lights illuminates the room, sending a smattering of colored circles across the walls. It’s quiet and dark in the house, and we watch the blinking tree for a while before I set her down on a quilt, plug in the heater, and start the coffee machine. Outside the streets are black and asleep. She coos into the silence.

2020 has stumbled forward at an awkward pace, vacillating between a dash and a drag. The last twelve months have brought up so much darkness bubbling just under the surface. No one has come out on the other side escaping cuts and bruises (some more than others). And in the nights that stretch longer and longer, minute by minute, the shortest day and longest night is fast approaching.

There’s a Persian holiday called Yalda Night (or Shab-e Cheleh), a celebration of the winter solstice on December 21st. Persians gather together, typically at the eldest family member’s home, once the sun sets, eating pomegranates, watermelon, and nuts, drinking tea, reading poems, and dancing into the early hours of the morning. It’s a way to pay tribute to the longest night of the year, knowing the next day will begin the slow walk to longer daylight—light’s victory over darkness.

In the Christian church, the liturgical season of Advent begins at the beginning of the month of December and ends on Christmas Eve. This time feels sacred because so much of it is steeped in waiting—something that has become so familiar to my family over the last few years. Advent is that messy and holy in-between where the night feels long and yet we know morning is coming.

In our little corner, grief and longing thread themselves among the holiday season. They do this time every year. My husband and I grieve over another year spent an ocean away from our families, raising a child in a place we did not choose. We long for my husband’s immigration process to move forward, the travel ban to be lifted. We find ourselves in the middle of the second wave of COVID restrictions in Turkey, with full weekend lockdowns, limited home gatherings, and daily curfews. We grieve over the sick and long for the health and safety of our friends and family. Layer upon layer of uncertainty cloaks our lives.

During the Christmas season, we wait for God made flesh, God who is already here. I also find myself waiting and hoping for peace and healing. I’d like to hope that as we enter a new year, we would begin again to welcome refugees and those fleeing their homes; we would extinguish the flames of racism and do the hard work of recognizing how white supremacy manifests in our own lives, acknowledging the ugly under belly of our nation; and we would listen and learn from marginalized communities and those who have felt unseen, unsafe, and unheard. I carry these prayers with me, for my own heart, into the coming new year—a clean slate, new mercies, a time to begin again.

So tomorrow, fresh after two days of complete lockdown, we will walk to my mother-in-law’s home down the road, carrying pomegranates and gifts. While COVID means our Christmas season will feel different, we look forward to introducing our daughter to Yalda Night, a pre-Christmas celebration, and hope for the day when all our family members can be together. We will celebrate the end of the lingering nights and welcome the start of longer, brighter days.

So, weary world, may we rejoice in a God who is familiar with the darkness and yet invites us and fills us with divine hope. Victory of light over darkness is coming. We know this because we know the end of the story. Let us come together this Christmas season, breathe a sigh of relief, and wait for the coming Light (and perhaps enjoy a pomegranate or two).


Photo by Pratiksha Mohanty on Unsplash

Our Story, Uncategorized

A Pandemic, a Travel Ban, an Overseas Birth Story

It’s 6 am and I’m already awake, laying on my side—the only position that feels half-way comfortable—when my water breaks. At least I think it’s my water. Truthfully, it feels like I peed my pants. There’s no poetic way to describe it. But something tells me this is not that, and I shift my weight slowly, like a turtle on its back, to look at my sleeping husband.

I lay like that for a while, letting the reality settle around me. The summer sun starts to filter in. A dog is barking somewhere in the neighborhood. But it’s eight days early, I think to myself. Everyone tells you you’ll go late with your first so I assumed I had more time. My mom is supposed to be here, is my second thought. She has all the swaddles, is my third. But she’s six thousand miles away and there are no flights because we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, and now we have no swaddles.

I silently rise from the bed and squeeze past the empty crib, making my way to the bathroom. No one tells you the water keeps coming, after you leave the bathroom, in the car to the hospital, waiting for the doctor to examine you. I wrap a towel around me while I walk through the house.

~~~

Throwing my hand on top of my husband’s shoulder, I laid most of my weight on him, trying to get myself to the empty chair on my mother-in-law’s balcony. My other hand held the bottom of my round stomach. We had just gone on a walk along the river, the June weather warm and breezy. People gathered on the grass, leaning against tree trunks, sipping hot tea. Covid restrictions be darned—nothing can stop Middle Easterners from picnicking in the summer.

Pregnancy had been easy, my body doing what the books said it was supposed to do, week by week, just a little bigger and a little more out of breath. Aside from that, things felt much the same—a saving grace when our life felt incredibly uncertain.

I heaved myself into the plastic chair and we all unwrapped our chicken dürüma common street food in Turkey. I propped up by feet, so swollen that it took work to slide off my sandals. Somewhere a woman shook out a heavy rug from her window. Thin swirls of smoke from the contraband picnics floated to the sky.

We joked that if the spicy chicken didn’t send me into labor that night, the full moon would.

~~~

I text my doula and my mom. They both confirm that, yes, it’s probably my water. I text a photo of the rising hot air balloons to my mom because they haven’t been in the sky since March. She texts back that I need to wake up my husband and tell him what’s going on.

Instead, I pour a cup of hot coffee and savor it on the couch in the silence of the living room.

I once read in a book somewhere a character described as someone with “complete assurance and more than a little recklessness.” I thought of my husband and that line has lived in my notes on my phone ever since. He is Persian through and through and I know exactly how he’d react to the news.

So I finish my cup of coffee first.

When I do tell him, with tears in my eyes, surprising myself with the sudden emotion, he cycles through every sort of reaction imaginable, like a thespian showing off their range in an audition. But for him, a man who wears his heart on his sleeve, it’s completely authentic. He’s upset for not telling him sooner. Then absolutely elated, shimming his hips and shoulders, snapping his fingers, and singing a made-up song. Then he’s on his knees, hands on my stomach, tears down his cheeks, praying for a safe delivery. We go through this cycle a couple more times before we get in the car.

~~~

We had been sitting across the table from each other once in the early days of dating, two cups of Turkish tea in tulip-shaped glasses in front of us, a street cat roaming under the table around our feet. It was during my second year teaching abroad and I hadn’t foreseen starting a relationship here—much less getting married and delivering my firstborn child.

“I have no grid in my brain to even begin to understand,” I had said to him, leaving my tea to cool and putting my hands in my lap, trying desperately to figure out this person in front of me, whose life had been so very different from my own. I didn’t know how to respond to his story of fleeing the only place he had ever called home due to the real threat of arrest, imprisonment–or death.

He had fiddled with the tiny sugar cube on the saucer for a moment before responding, “It’s because you’re an American; you’ve never had to think about what it’s like to be a refugee.”

~~~

My water broke but it wasn’t yet time for her to come. She still felt tucked up, hidden away inside me. The hour’s drive to the hospital, I felt much the same as I had the day before, although now wet and sitting on a towel. It was too early in the morning for the police checkpoints set up at the province border, usually there to take our temperature and verify we had the right papers.

The doctor confirms my body isn’t doing anything so Pitocin is started. Avoiding an induction was on the top of my birth plan, but with any birth and also the added layer of living in another country, things don’t always go as wished—a lesson I have spent years learning. My husband and I walk up and down the birthing unit’s hallway, dragging the IV drip behind like a dog on a leash. He makes light-hearted banter with the nurses. A hospital worker puts a wooden laser cut design of our baby’s name on the front of our door.

The contractions begin slowly and build up in strength, coming over me like waves, one on top of the other. I assume my body is doing what it’s supposed to do, but the nurses check and it’s not. The contractions come too hard and too fast so I ask for an epidural. 

Afterwards, I carefully bounce on a birthing ball and resume slowly walking up and down the hallway, grasping at the wall’s hand rail, my legs heavy and numb. We eat lunch and dinner in our room and I remember breezily asking my doula if eating now will make me throw up later. We flip through the television channels to pass the time and land on the Turkish version of Animal Planet.

But hours later the epidural wears off and the sharp waves come back. I ask for another dose but my body still hasn’t progressed much. The doctor comes back. It’s late at night and I find myself wondering where she has been. Has she come from her house and family? She’s worried because my water had been broken for over twelve hours. The baby is stressed. She brings up the real possibility of a c-section.

~~~

Early 2017, we’d been engaged for just a few months and began to dream of what a wedding in the US might look like. But then there was an administration change and a man who campaigned on strict immigration restrictions was sworn in. Seven days later, he signed an executive order to ban travelers from seven countries, Iran included. 

Our dreams of a US wedding quickly crumbled and we recalibrated our plans—something we would be doing often over the next four years. The door to the future we had dreamed about was slammed shut. Turkey grudgingly became our home and now the place we would start our family.

~~~

Someone catches my vomit in a plastic bag. Sorry, again, there’s no poetic way to describe that. A c-section is imminent. The doctor keeps saying the baby is stressed, and my doula sifts through the awkward curtain of translating from one language to another to try to understand what the doctor means.

The operating room is cold and white and no outside people are allowed in, one of the hospital’s extra precautions against Covid. But my husband charms the nurses and they bend the rules for him. He’s seated near my head. We lock eyes and I’m grateful to have him there in a sea of nurses and doctors who are speaking in a language I barely understand.

She’s cut out of me and she screams. Her cheek is brought next to mine and I crane to kiss her before she’s taken away to be cleaned.

My first words were to my husband: There was an actual baby in there! And second: I’m never doing that again. Although even in the moment, I know I don’t mean it.

~~~

She’s a copy of her dad, dark hair, long lashes, eyes the color of copper. No one says she looks like me. No matter though. For nine months I housed her, grew her, kept her safe.

My parents are eventually able to fly across the ocean to meet their new granddaughter. My mom makes casseroles and muffins, does loads of laundry, and walks a fussy newborn. I’ll be forever thankful to have my mom by my side while I took my first wobbly steps into motherhood. Also, she brought the swaddles.

Our baby gets her US citizenship at two weeks old. My husband accidentally rips the corner of her birth certificate trying to get out her passport from the manila envelope. It means a lot to him, this small blue book. Already her future is better than what his own passport could provide. A refugee, a man who crossed borders, fled his home, had everything taken away from him so he could make a better future, whose daughter is a US citizen.

The nurses call her yeni kuş and fındık, the Turkish words for baby bird and hazelnut. My Iranian family calls her zendegeearoosak, and jigaram, the Farsi words for life, mini-bride, and my liver (yes, liver). The neighborhood aunties dote and gurgle and shower her with mashallahs, always tut-tutting at me for not keep her warm enough.

She coos and I call her my little dove. She smiles a hundred times a day and I call her my sunshine girl.

We name her Esther after Esther of the Old Testament, a Jewish woman living in exile, becoming a queen, saving her people. Esther, bold and courageous, standing up for truth and fighting for the good of others.

Our Esther was born to a refugee and a US citizen, in neither’s home country, amid a travel ban and an impossible immigration process, during a pandemic. Already she is strong and brave.

She is our star, a bright spot in the dark, joy in the middle of a whole lot of hardship, made for such a time as this. We are so happy she’s here.

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Little Joy Crumbs

A tiny foot is wedged into the bottom of my ribcage, prompting me to surrender to third-trimester insomnia and rise with the spring sun. I make coffee, pulling down the same two mugs I always do for my husband and myself. It is a daily rhythm serving as an anchor in these strange times where one day bleeds into the next.

Today the coffee has to brew over the gas stovetop because of a neighborhood power outage—a small inconvenience, but I have lived abroad long enough to expect interruptions. It comes with the package when signing up for the expatriate life.

But how troubling it is the first time the veil of certainty is stolen from our startled hands and we realize we were not as in control as we once thought. How troubling it is when a novel virus carries itself invisibly from street to street, city to city, and we all find ourselves behind the closed doors of our homes, our routines wholly and completely upset. “Normal” holds a new definition now, the old meaning tossed aside. One day it was and the next it was not.

My husband and I have had good practice braving the onset of life’s interruptions. Prolonged uncertainty breeds isolation but we have learned to receive it. Along with living in a foreign country, we got married amid a controversial travel ban, paddled the choppy waters of immigration visas, and are now bringing a child into a worldwide pandemic. Uncertainty is an always-present third party perched on top of the couch, a visitor who has missed the cues and overstayed its welcome.

Like brewing coffee, walking outside each day—perhaps more of a waddle, belly propelling me forward—has been another anchor, a sacred cadence for the soul.

 Neighboring homes stand stoic and taciturn as families tuck themselves inside. The unusual silence cloaks everything like a stubborn layer of dust. There are masked faces, parks wrapped in police tape, canceled plans, and disappointments.

 But when looking a little more closely, there is also a wave of a hand from a watchful grandma behind glass, a clumsily colored rainbow taped to a window, a softer and gentler greeting between two people as they pass six feet apart. A turtle ambles across the rocks. The lilac trees blossom into soft purples. A collared dove perched in an evergreen calls out in a long, slow lament.

Having weathered many upsets in life, my husband and I know the feeling of juggling juxtaposing emotions. At the beginning of the year, we received news that caused the seams of our life to unravel and the ground beneath our feet to shake. The heartbeat of every one of our prayers for the last few years was for a single door to open. And now, after one phone call with an impassive immigration clerk on the other end of the line, that door was closed shut.

Yet life went on and my belly grew a little rounder each day. A week after receiving the devastating news, we held a party with our close friends where we bit into cupcakes to the count of three and cheered when little pink sprinkles spilled out from the middle—a girlWe celebrated with frosting decorating the corners of our laughing mouths, sprinkles falling into cupped hands. And I remember feeling these words dash across my mind for just a fleeting moment: This is kind of nice.

When receiving the difficult news earlier that week, all our future dreams dissipated in front of us. We could no longer plan ahead. The curtain of certainty was stolen and replaced with an unending today but never tomorrow. But this—celebrating the coming of a new baby girl with pink cupcakes and laughs and prayers—was nice. 

The late poet, Mary Oliver, writes that joy should not be compared to a crumb. Recognizing the scattering of little joy crumbs on the counters of our lives does not need to be embarrassingly brushed into our hands and down the sink or quickly wiped from our lips before anyone has noticed. “If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,” she pens, “don’t hesitate. Give in to it.” We have permission to recognize the little bit of beauty in the struggles of life.

Spotting joy—there it is and there is another!—does not overshadow the weight of grief, disappointment, and pain, for these too, are important to hold. Feeling one thing does not negate the other because both/and fits comfortably on our laps.

Joy makes space for these heavy things. We can lift it onto one hip and sorrow the other, our arms wrapped around both like a mother gathering her children to her. It is in the tension of life’s complications where the scent of God is. It is here—right here, at this moment—where the Creator speaks, for he holds it all together. At this crossroads is where we can partake in the glory that will be revealed at God’s coming again.

Joy is in the kick of a tiny baby’s foot, the slow brew of morning coffee, a power outage, the daily rhythm of rising and opening curtains. It is in a leisurely walk, the still small whisper of God’s voice, two mugs set out on the table, frosting on a cupcake. Perhaps looking for these is a way to fight back against the heaviness of life. Perhaps it is okay to see a morsel of joy in the middle of pain.

So when you do see little joy do not hesitate. Give in to it. Grab on to it.

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The Good Luck Mug

If you ever come to our home, you’ll probably be greeted with a cup of tea no matter the season. Admittedly, not by me—I’m still learning the art of tea-making—but by my husband. And don’t expect the instant tea-bag-dunked-in-hot-water kind. No, you will be given slowed-brewed Persian chai—black tea leaves with hints of cinnamon and cardamom, steeped all morning over a low open flame on the stove.

And there might be a chance you’ll reach into the kitchen cabinet for a glass and unknowingly grab the red mug. It’s a small, stout ceramic cup, half-submerged in vermillion red paint, half left as natural clay. We have a green and blue one too. They’re handmade by a Turkish potter, getting his clay from the river running through our town, spinning them on his wheel and firing them in his kiln down the street.

But the red mug? That’s our good luck mug.

It’s called that not because it mystically brings years of good fortune and success to the drinker (at least not that we know of). It’s not because it’s pretty and unique—and it is, made locally and one-of-a-kind. There isn’t one like it. Even its siblings who sit quietly in a row on the store shelf all look slightly different from each other upon closer inspection.

It’s called our good luck mug because it has cracks—actually, a lot of cracks. Actually, the handle has been broken off and glued back together three different times in four different places. There are thick clumps of dried superglue oozing out of the broken areas and little paint chips sprinkled around the rim. ‘Good luck’ in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way because the glued-on handle has, on more than one occasion, slowly and melodramatically separated from the rest of the mug while in use.

Life holds a lot of cracks, doesn’t it?

Our miserable-looking mug, in all its fractures and pitiful glue attempts, brings to mind the stories of grief we all carry, how life has the power to crack us wide open. I have yet to meet someone who isn’t shouldering a rucksack of grief—past or present, big or small, seen or hidden. At the moment, we are all living in the same state of cracks as we experience a global pandemic, and with that brings in worry for high-risk loved ones, disappointment from canceled plans, and the loss of any sense of normalcy.

My husband and I have experienced ongoing grief before; this feeling isn’t new to us. It wasn’t just one defining moment or one break down the middle, but a series of blows and burials of dreams. We haven’t seen much come to fruition, or at least not many prayers answered in ways we had hoped. Any appearance of control we thought we possessed has been jostled out of our hands. Add on to that a pandemic, living in a foreign country, and the upcoming birth of our first child and our stress has been turned up one too many notches.

On a macro-level, we are all enduring the world turning upside down. And with that, there’s been a lot of online content lately written by well-meaning people who are trying to be encouraging during this time of heightened uncertainty. In a benevolent effort to ease the discomfort of quarantine and social distancing, there has been a flood of to-do lists, checklists, advice, and examples of productive routines infiltrating our inboxes. Get up early, exercise every day, bake bread, organize the junk drawer, write letters, zoom in meetings, get creative, be grateful, find a new normal.

But coming from someone who has had prolonged uncertainty as a constant sidekick for the past three years, let me be the first to tell you that you don’t have to do any of that. It’s too much pressure when the world feels a little too shaky. When tomorrow is shadowed in the unknown, sometimes we need to survive before we think about thriving. Often, it is more essential to acknowledge how we feel for a little awhile before we choose all the “shoulds” thrown our way.

This grief—a crack on the handle here, a chip around the rim there—can teach us the importance of holding space. In her book, The Broken Way, Ann Voskamp suggests, “Maybe wholeness is embracing brokenness as part of your life.” And when life throws a curveball, like an outbreak of a novel virus, we hold on to hope, which cannot be held on to without a few cracks. Grief, cracks, wholeness, and hope. They’re the ingredients to a recipe for fertile and holy ground. Welcome it.

If your good luck mug has cracks like mine—perhaps from the strange state of the world or from something else entirely—hold space for it. Don’t take sandpaper to it and buff out the discomfort by way of routines and productivity just yet. Identify the grief you’re feeling. Look for the growth among the cracks. Doing so can make way for wholeness. Joy and grief can be felt simultaneously. Imperfections and beauty can live side-by-side. And know this: the cracks are not fragile despite their appearance. They are being held together tightly by the Potter, the one who created the mug, the one who sees, who resurrects, who makes all things new.

When life feels unresolved and the threads of simply being are left untied, come to our house—you’ll be in like-minded company. Pull up the comfy chair, the one over there in the corner with the throw pillows. We’ll offer you that good, Middle Eastern chai. Choose the ramshackle cup with the crimson red paint and embrace both the defects and beauty. Hold space for grief in this time of uncertainty. Trust that the cracks will lead to light.

And, while I cannot prove this for sure, I’m almost certain everything tastes just a little bit better and a little bit sweeter in that good luck mug.

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Ode to the Soul Weary

The low heat rises from the radiator and into the palms of my hands flat against the grate. Rubbing the sleep from eyes, I return my glasses back on the bridge of my nose and take an extra minute to look out the window.

There’s magic in the early mornings; it took me a while to realize this. There’s something special in the quiet moments just before the sun rises. It doesn’t come from the feeling of productivity – getting up early only to begin crossing things off a to-do list. No, there’s no magic in sitting in front of a bright screen, answering emails before dawn. It doesn’t come from waking up first, before the rest of the household, before the energetic sounds of kitchen cupboards closing, showers running, yawns, coffee cups, and dishes.

The magic of rising early in the morning lies in the fact that the outside world has yet to start. The earth’s groanings, all the stress and uncertainty she carries on her back, is still pushed down below the horizon line along with the sun. It’s hidden behind the mountains, and for one sacred hour each day, I can pretend the earth is at peace with herself because for once there are no screaming headlines, breaking news, or minute-by-minute updates. I savor the gentleness of a morning that has yet to hold the stress and uncertainty of life and all that’s in it. That’ll all come later – soon – as it inevitably does, but for now, there’s peace and beauty and a little magic.

Out the window and beyond the streetlights, standing tall and proud in the twilight, are tiny flickering candles nestled in the foothills – hundreds of hot air balloons, a popular tourist attraction in this region of the country. Ethereal, they whisper their presence out into the sleepy dark, like little paper lanterns scattered down the mountains. The flames from their bellies blinking bright then soft, then bright again. It’s a morse code of good mornings.

***

I am soul-weary these days. Parched. Dry. Heavy. Maybe you feel it too?

In our house, we call these times “being in our cave”, when the world gets a little too much and we need to steal away under the refuge of a metaphoric cavern for a while.

I am weary from feeling out of control over so many things: election results, virus pandemics, greedy politicians who use people like pieces of a board game. My neck hurts from headline whiplash, shocked by and outraged over daily news stories only until the next breaking report comes along.

The earth groans and I hear the voices of a thousand, a million, who are uprooted and have no place to call home – and no home that wants to call them there. It’s a weariness that comes from the stories of loved ones who are also waving the banner of uncertainty and leading the way in the parade of unending waiting – stories not mine to tell.

“Where is the justice?” we ask into the void of the pre-morning darkness. “When does mercy come?” The earth and all that is in her yearns for an answer. This longing for things to be set right and for crooked paths to be made straight is inherent in all of us.

So what do we do when it is not yet time for those questions to pair up with answers? How do we get relief from the tiredness of our souls?

***

The faraway hot air balloons begin to take flight, one by one, slow motion into the air. The first one leaves, confident, like a baby bird flying the nest for the first time, then the next and the next. And soon the whole sky is a panorama of kaleidoscopic balloons, ebbing and flowing as the sun rises behind them.

What do we do when we are soul weary and the world is too much? We can take comfort in routine and rhythms, still opening to scripture each day, even when the tissue paper pages feel like bowling balls. Deep calls out to deep, and we can find rest for our souls in the depth of the Creator’s goodness.

We can take active steps to put limits on what we consume. Unfollow news sites, snooze the people who post too many political things, turn off the WiFi at night and leave it off for a little longer each morning. Protect your soul. Boundaries are good. It’s okay to be gentle with yourself; it’s too much for us to continually absorb all the world’s grief.

Is your soul weary like mine? You can get up just a minute or two earlier and stand in front of the window just a minute or two longer. Maybe you don’t have a balloon show out your backyard every morning, but maybe you do have a twinkling river. Look at how the moon shines itself on top of the still waters. See the looming pine trees cuddled together around your home? Watch how the early morning shadows wrap themselves around the branches. Study the street lights, the neighbor’s garden, the freshly fallen snow, the flitting songbirds. The magic of the earth reveals itself slowly if we stop and look for it.

To the soul-weary: Things will one day be set right. It’s been promised to us. But in the meantime, find little pockets of peace. Be gentle and brave and still and quiet. Look for the magic.