The Longest Night and the Smallest Tree

We have this three-foot Christmas tree, a wimpy little thing we got on a whim during our first Christmas as a married couple. We found it small and cheap in a local market here. The week before Christmas, the store had set out the most dismal holiday display with dusty boxes of these tabletop artificial trees, kitschy ornaments, and a Santa hat (bless ‘em). Surprised to find Christmas decorations in a country that didn’t formally recognize the holiday, we bought the whole display.

But it wasn’t a long-term investment; we weren’t thinking one year down the road…let alone six.

And now that little tree with its cheap ornament counterparts has become an annual reminder of our wish to be anywhere but here, tangled with the reality that we are still here.

My daughter shakes with pent-up anticipation as I carefully slide the tree from its box. But an unnamable heaviness begins to settle on my chest. Here it is again. This sad little thing. Year number six. Another Christmas. I set it upright in the middle of the living room, fluffing out its branches and brushing away its fallen plastic needles.

The tree, so small in stature, barely clears the top of my daughter’s head as she stands next to it, carefully examining each ornament. She tries out the new, unfamiliar word—or-na-ment—on her lips as I thread a string of lights around the tree branches. A miniature clay pitcher is declared her favorite, and I make a mental note to keep it forever, to hang on whatever tree we’ll have, in whatever part of the world we’ll be. 

The sun has already begun to set this time of the afternoon, spreading like a purple bruise across the sky and casting stretched-out shadows along the wall. Since June, the earth itself has continued to grow darker, where dawn takes her time and dusk makes haste.

Darkness seems to always crowd its way in. 

Once we’ve finished decorating the tree, my daughter lets out an exhaled wow, and I can’t help but laugh, squinting hard to try to understand what she sees.

I stand the tree up on a side table to give the illusion of height, fluffing out its branches again as if that will make it grow. The living room is now shrouded in darkness, the sun hidden behind the foothills. The battery-operated string lights winding around the branches blink and fade, blink and fade, casting pinpricks of tiny yellow light into the darkened room. 

There’s a Persian holiday called Yalda Night, a celebration of the winter solstice on December 21st—the longest night of the year. Once the sun sets, celebrators gather together, typically at the eldest family member’s home, to eat pomegranates, watermelon, and nuts, drink tea, read poems, and dance into the early morning hours. 

Yalda Night is a way to pay tribute to the longest night because celebrators know the next day will begin the slow walk to a longer daylight.

A neighbor boy comes over to our house the next day and announces that this is the tiniest tree he has ever seen and he didn’t even know Christmas trees came this small and, really, where did we get such a ­tiny tree?

I actually feel the need to defend the old broad. Sheesh, kid. She’s at least a step or two up from Charlie Brown’s. The teacher in me almost launches into a lesson about how our lived experiences are not always the same as others, and we don’t all celebrate holidays in the same way. 

But I don’t have it in me to explain to a seven-year-old all this tree holds: six years of grief, loss, hope-filled longing, and defiance in darkness. So, instead, I give a diplomatic response (“Mmm, yes. Where ever did we get that tiny tree?”) and hand him a cup of hot chocolate.

In a time where so many of us are feeling world-weary, spiritually slumped, and more than a little cynical, it’s easy to think things will only get darker, only get worse, that the shimmer of light will keep drifting just out of reach. I’m preaching to the choir when I say we’re all limping into the holiday season. We only have to read the headlines or sit with neighbors or look at our own lives to see that grief needles its way among the parties, the baking, and the gift wrapping.

We shoulder displacement and disappointment and the wish for tyrants to disappear. We wait for visas, plane tickets, and word from relatives living through a revolution. We tiptoe over this place that has become a precarious home for us, all the while knowing this is the only spot on earth where we can be together as a family. 

The tightrope we so delicately balance on, one foot in front of the other, seems to keep growing, extending out the window, past the ridges, and into the hazy wall of clouds. 

How unnerving it is to have our future hinge on such fragile threads. 

But the longest night of the year tells us something different. To recognize and even celebrate the longest night means that this isn’t the end of the story. Light is near.

This year, as we wait for the longest, darkest night to come, we will reach for good food, poetry, music, and dancing. And we will reach for each other, even if it’s through a screen, even if it’s halfway across the world because when daylight does eventually come, it will stretch just a bit longer than the night before.

We don’t have a big fancy tree or a fireplace to adorn with garlands and stockings. We don’t have the freedom to think, dream, or plan. We only have this ordinary tree—and the three of us under one roof. It isn’t Instagram-worthy, but it represents something more than just the snarled mess of a dream not yet come true.

This little plastic tree, surviving year after year, stands in front of the window, looking out over a land that will always be foreign, as a symbol of hope for a future beyond here, strength to endure the unknown, and peace while we wait for the light to come.

And if I try to see with the eyes of a toddler, well then, I think there’s some magic here, too.


Women, Life, Freedom

Sometimes I think about the ways I want my daughter to remember me. As in, what sorts of memories she’ll have of her childhood and her mother and growing up. Among walks to the park and a love for reading, one of the things I hope she looks back on is cooking together in the kitchen. Since she could stand, I have always tried to incorporate her into whatever I’m doing at the counter.

She is a master at cracking eggs now. She can chop vegetables. Mix the batter. I’m excited to see her cooking skills progress and her passion for working in the kitchen grow if that’s what she wants. I hope she has good memories of cooking alongside me and the smells of rice sizzling from the stove and banana bread baking from the oven—a mixture of both her worlds.

We stand next to each other, her stool pulled up to the counter. “Help?” she’ll always ask no matter what’s happening on the countertop, and if I’ve got the bandwidth, I try to find ways she can be involved.

She cuts up cucumbers with her plastic toddler knife, chopping with such intense focus. So serious is this vegetable-cutting business. I grate the rest of the cucumber into a bowl of yogurt. We are making mast-o khiar, a minty Persian yogurt dip to go with the chicken roasting in the oven and the rice steaming on the stovetop.

When I married into a Persian family five years ago, I was quickly introduced to a new world—one filled with the flavors of saffron, watermelon, pistachios, and cardamom-flavored tea. It was a world full of gracious hospitality, one where a guest is welcomed into the home like a long-lost family member and left with a part of the host’s heart—and never an empty stomach.

It was also a world that distanced itself from its government. A world that carried a complicated history and trauma from the forty-year veil of oppression the government had forced over its people, stamping out any joy and freedom that threatened to swell.

Two weeks ago, a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman, Mahsa Jina Amini, was visiting family in Iran’s capital city, when the police violently arrested her for improperly wearing her headscarf. While in police custody, Mahsa went into an a coma and soon died. Her death became the catalyst for a wave of protests throughout Iran, people taking to the streets in raw rage against the regime.

Young women and girls have been spearheading the uprising these last few weeks. Viral videos show the terrifying courage of women tearing off their headscarves and burning them in fires. Women cut their hair, shave their heads, dance, and sing in the streets, all defiant acts done in front of advancing lines of police.

I watch a video of a woman tying her uncovered hair back into a ponytail—an act so mundane for me but sheer bravery for her—before she runs to join a group of protesters. Just days after the video of her went viral, news spreads that she was shot dead by security forces. She was 20 years old.

An image makes the rounds of a teenager standing defiantly at the newly dug grave of her mother, also murdered by the police. The grieving girl grasps in her hand strands of her hair that were once attached to her now-shaved head. Her headscarf is wrapped around her neck and black combat boots on her feet. Her eyes hold a chilling look of fierce determination.

I learn to write “zan, zendegi, azadi” in Farsi, my handwriting shaky and unsure in the unfamiliar script. Women, Life, Freedom has become the unofficial slogan chanted by millions around the world, standing in solidarity with Iranians. We play Shervin Hajipour’s song of resistance in our home, his voice and lyrics have become the anthem to the uprising, carrying on even after his arrest and disappearance.

What else can you do when your husband’s homeland is burning?

My daughter turns to me after a moment, breaking her attention away from the cutting board, and raises her knife in the air. “Cheers!” she cries out—a new thing she does whenever she notices us doing the same activity, wearing the same color, or holding the same item. I stop chopping walnuts, and we clink together the utensils. “Cheers,” I respond. She smiles broadly, so proud of herself, and resumes her concentration on the cucumbers.

I look at my half-Iranian daughter, her olive skin, her long eyelashes, her full eyebrows that all but meet in the middle, and her chestnut hair curled in ringlets around her face—hair made to blow freely in the wind.

And while I hope she looks back fondly at the memories of cooking with her mom, learning how to make banana bread and tater-tot hotdish, and singing Baa, Baa, Black Sheep and Itsy Bitsy Spider, so much more do I want her to connect with the land of her father’s childhood.

I hope she’ll come to love shaking the tree branches for senjed, reciting Lili Lili Hozak on her outspread hands, dancing to the golden hits of Hayedeh, eating chicken straight off the bone, staining her fingertips yellow from turmeric, making crispy tahdig, and brewing the perfect cup of chai.

I hope she will one day know the Iran that lives in her babayee’s heart and memories.

My husband didn’t just bring into our family kebabs and khoreshghorme sabzi and gheymehlavash and lavashak. His heritage shows our daughter how to fiercely love her family, to always be up for a party, to be the one pulling others out onto the dance floor, to always welcome and accept, and most importantly, to be brave and speak out even when the ugliness of injustice and oppression roars back.

I hold my hand over hers as we gingerly dip the teaspoon into the dried mint to shake over the yogurt. I reach for the jar of dried rose petals and have her smell the sweet perfume-y scent before placing a few petals on top of the yogurt.

But what I hope for most of all is that she will be proud of all the brave Iranian women who have come before her. Because a part of her is in these woman. These shir zans. These lion women. May she and the rest of the world see their courage, know their strength, and hear their voice.

Image by Ozan Guzelce via Getty Images


Not Quite Home

A traditional folk song floats out from the balcony above us. The hypnotic melody plucked from the strings of a Turkish saz emits from a kitchen radio and drifts along the current of the cool September breeze.

The July and August near triple-digit heat has finally broken. The residents of every home along this dead-end street have all tumbled out of their houses this afternoon, grateful for a change in weather.

The milkman’s wife rearranges the garland of peppers strung up across the outside of her window. The shades of red that form a festive wreath will soon be dry enough to boil into a paste and jarred for the coming winter months. She checks on her apricots dehydrating in large pans in the sun, too.

A beat-up soccer ball bounces by our gate and lands in the middle of a cocklebur bush. A group of kids scream and run after the ball, kicking up a cloud of dust as they pass by.

My daughter and I sit on the concrete steps leading up to the entrance of our apartment building. She shrieks as I blow a lazy stream of bubbles into the air. The sun’s still-strong rays push through the trumpet vines wrapped around the arbor, causing me to squint into the sky as I follow the bubbles.

This morning the yeasty scent of fresh bread hung heavy from the neighborhood bakery down the road. Now the smell of burning wood from a neighbor one block away fills the air, reminiscent of campfires at the end of a day on a Minnesota lake. I swear I hear the familiar, eerie tremolo of a loon but I know it’s the somber call of the mourning dove who’s perched deep in the Mediterranean cypress.

Bigger kids ride bikes up and down the street, shouting back and forth to each other. One girl plays her plastic recorder while others gather around her vying for a turn. Grandmothers sit on the steps outside their buildings, wearing crocheted vests and embroidered head scarves, and gossiping while passing around a bag of sunflower seeds. A baby cries from a balcony and its father, weary from a day of work, shrugs off his sport coat and softly pats the infant’s backside. They glide together, back and forth, across the balcony.

I watch the little bubbles gently float from the wand like the wishing seeds of a blown dandelion towards the balcony playing music. They are at the mercy of only the direction of the wind. I brace myself for the inevitable pop, throwing a sideways glance at my two-year-old who is shaking with pent-up energy, trying to catch the bubbles. Like fireworks fading against a twilight sky, bubbles have always seemed a little depressing. Both are beautiful and mesmerizing—if only for a fleeting instant.

And yet my daughter doesn’t seem to care about the short life of the bubble. She doesn’t even notice when it pops and disappears. And who can blame her? The iridescent bubbles floating above our heads are striking, reflecting light and color as they hang in the air for a moment. But the bubbles don’t break her heart as they do mine.

Our landlord’s daughter-in-law pulls up in a car and asks if she can borrow our stroller again to take downtown for the evening. I understand every third word or so and help her fold it up while my daughter eyes her son uneasily from behind my legs.

There are times I wish I could kick and claw my way out of here—this place where I’m still very much a foreigner, a stranger on the outside looking in.

I dream of one day being able to drift above the clouds in an airplane with my whole family next to me, over borders and across oceans, to a place with much more stability, to a life beyond here. Because always lurking in the back of my mind is a sense that the ground on which we built this life is not ours.

This isn’t home for us.

We’ve now moved on from blowing bubbles, and my daughter drags me by the hand out into the sun to play Ring Around the Rosie. We slowly spin in a circle and I begin to sing the nursery rhyme. She anticipates the last line of the song, swinging her arms up and down in excitement and bouncing on the balls of her feet. When I get to “…and we all fall down,” she drops to the ground, landing squarely on her backside, squealing with happiness.

Our singing and laughing add to the rest of the chaotic noise outside—our little melody complementing the neighborhood’s symphony. This isn’t home for us, but I offer our own little line to the greater song, anyway.

The two of us spin in a circle some more, and my singing—which embarrassingly echoes off the concrete—catches the attention of one of the girls who lives a few houses down. She slowly approaches our gate, curious. Not wanting to scare her off, we twirl and fall a few more times before I call her over in the little Turkish I know. She gives a small shake of her head to my invitation and instead offers a grin revealing two missing front teeth. After a bit, she wanders off to join her friends.

I might use another word for ‘home’ to describe where we are right now, but the answer to where I am is shaping who I am.

Regardless of what I call this place, it is a part of a larger story. This house on a dead-end street in a town in the middle of a foreign land is but one thread to a bigger, more colorful tapestry.

Although being here won’t last forever, there is beauty to be found. It is beautiful because of its brevity, not despite it. Like the bubbles, there is joy right here if only we’d stop to savor it.

Chicken simmers in sauces and the scent of fried onions drift from open windows as mothers lean out, calling in their children for dinner. The folk music has been turned off and is now replaced with the careful clink of plates and the scrape of chairs across tile. Slowly the happy chaos outside dwindles as intergenerational families gather inside around tables to share a meal.

Leaning over our front gate I look for the source of singing that has caught my ears and spot the curious girl form earlier holding hands and spinning in a circle with her friends. They chant a rhyme in Turkish—unfamiliar to me, but a slow smile spreads across my face when I realize what they are doing. In unison, they sing until they get to the end of the song where they each fall onto the ground in a heap of giggles, only to get back up and start again.  


Thursday in the Garden

The east side of our apartment building sits most of its day firmly in the shade of three evergreen trees. A fourth tree had once stood in the row, but one year it had gotten so sick and so tall that our landlords had it chopped down. Part of the trunk is still in its initial spot but now serves as a sturdy leg for a table in the garden surrounding it.

My daughter and I haven’t been going to any parks in the afternoon, like we do most of the year when the weather isn’t so blistering. Temperatures the last couple of weeks have been nearing triple digits, the weather app showing a map engulfing the entire country in blazing reds. I wince every time I check the forecast showing unending hot temperatures ten days out, and I vow to stop opening the app.

In place of the park, we adventure around our apartment building in the afternoons while we wait for my husband to get home from work. The temperatures seem to be at least ten degrees cooler in the shade. And in the late afternoon in late August, a welcomed breeze reminds us that this season will soon end.

Enjoying a little break from the heat, we bring toys and scoops and buckets to this side of the yard. Each day, my daughter looks for a thick stick and starts digging into the bed of pine needles to see what treasures lay below. Lately, it’s been empty snail shells, tiny dry pine cones (which she refers to as porcupines—something I never want her to stop saying), fat beetles scurrying just out of her reach, and busy anthills.

Sometimes I sit in silence and watch her, feeling the late summer breeze play on my arms, watching the dappled light dance on the concrete where I sit, and listening to the magpie warble in the evergreen above us. Other times I bring bubbles and blow them into the air as she works. Today, though, she asks me to “talk-you-mom,” which means she wants me to talk to her while she plays. My mind draws a blank, having been put on the spot, so I decide to narrate what she’s doing, giving words to how she works, how she digs into the dirt, chases an ant, and examines a singular pine needle. This seems to satisfy her.

However, she quickly loses interest in digging, having grown bored playing in the same place in the yard each day. Tossing aside her scoop and bucket, she runs to the front of the building, calling after me. It’s still so hot, and I can only move so fast, but I meet up with her on the other side of the building, where it’s bathed in sunshine.

She stands at the closed gate guarding our landlord’s garden. “Open-open-open,” she demands, rattling the little wooden door. I unlatch it and we walk through. The large trellises lush with winding grape vines act as a screen, but the blinding sun still pushes its rays through the leaves. While there is an abundance of green everywhere, bits of yellow start to peek through—an indication that we are standing on the threshold of fall.

The bunches of grapes hanging on the vine are not quite ready for picking, but their presence heralds the coming of autumn. Next month, they will be ripe and full. Local women will harvest their garden grapes, gathering together in groups to boil them down into syrup once the outside temps cool.  

We walk past several rose bushes and sit down in two lawn chairs. Esther swings her legs back and forth and asks me to do the same. I look over the rest of the garden while swinging my legs. Purple eggplants hang heavy on their stalks. The green heirloom tomatoes are not quite ready for harvest, along with many zucchinis that didn’t exist a week ago. And beds burst with petunias and asters.

The landlords have built a makeshift greenhouse made out of plywood and tarp. It doesn’t look pretty, but at the beginning of spring, the inside of it bursts with parsley and arugula, sending an herby fragrance so strong I can smell it when I hang laundry off our balcony. 

The tarp snaps in the comfortable breeze, and Esther and I sit, pointing out flocks of birds flying south overhead and little ants circling our feet.

“Talk-you-mom?” she asks again, and this time I tell her about all we have done this summer, the new places we traveled, the new recipes we cooked, the new friends we met. I tell her about the plans we have for the fall right around the corner. We dream of all the things to come.

Summer will soon end. The trumpet vines will slowly die, and the rose bushes will dry up. The eggplants will be harvested, and the tomatoes turned red will be set out to dry and then cooked to make a paste for the winter months. The grass will turn a dusty and fragile brown.

But then a new season will come, to heal and renew. With fall, I tell her, there will be grapes bursting on the vines again.

Photo by Malaya Sadler on Unsplash


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.