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The Awkwardness of Holding Both, the Permission to Do It Anyway

There are thirty-one boxes of mine taking up real estate in my parents’ home, much to their protests. Isn’t that what inevitably happens when children grow into adults? They don’t have room at their place for sentimental keepsakes or items not needed at the moment, and so it all makes its way back to their parents’ basement.

In any event, I have boxes of all sizes sitting like pieces of Tetris on storage shelves there. I know the exact number because I counted and made a list the last time I was home. None of the boxes are opened. A brand new set of kitchen knives, baking dishes, blender, rice cooker, espresso maker, cheese grater, and more wait to be cut open, taken out, and used. Almost everything was bought with gift cards given to us when we got married four years ago and again as graduation gifts when my husband finished his master’s last year. 

It is there, deep in a basement in North Dakota, where our imaginary future lies—one we had envisioned together even before we got married. Those boxes were meant to be used in our life in the US, a sort of nest egg put together by bits and pieces over the years, representing our dream of a life no longer overseas: a Kitchen-aid mixer placed on the counter in a just-moved-in apartment, begging for someone to mix a batter of cookie dough; a spice rack filled with tiny glass jars, a colorful representation of our bicultural family; a coffee machine waiting to be brewed faithfully every morning. 

But then a travel ban happened, barring my husband from entering the US solely due to the passport he carried. It forced us to get married in a country that was home to neither of us, our lives coming to a screeching halt. During four years, deadbolt after deadbolt was installed and latched, pushing us further from our future. After the implosion of the US immigration system, we scrambled to find anything that might be a key. The dream of living in the US was a shore that drifted just out of reach, a place of refuge that we could never quite grasp. We remained in Turkey.

Over time, those boxes became buried under plastic totes filled with photos taken decades ago and other boxes containing childhood stuffed animals, Christmas decor, and china sets. My mom would add a cloth shower curtain, and my sister a picture frame and some coffee mugs, signs they hadn’t given up hope, even though our imaginary future began to collect dust. 

For so much of our marriage, we have been living in the short term. This is seen in how we’ve furnished our apartment in Turkey. Most things were bought second-hand or were used items passed on to us from friends. I can probably count on one hand how many items we purchased new and at full price. If we had to leave at a moment’s notice, we could easily shed this current life for the one we desired because none of the pieces held much sentimental or monetary value to us.

It took us well into our daughter’s first year of life before we even considered putting together a nursery for her. We had the spare room, that wasn’t the issue, but the emotional energy it took to put down even shallow roots was a lot. But as she neared her first birthday, we did it anyway. We needed to and she deserved a space of her own. We didn’t paint and we bought very little, if anything, new. This helped quell the sting of making our house a home here and not there. What was once a dream reserved for our life in the future, was altered to fit our life in the present.

***

The other night, Afshin and I sat on the floor of Esther’s room, getting her ready for bed, something we tag team each night. He was reading a book in Farsi to her, one where daddy animals kiss their babies. He read a line: “Daddy giraffe kisses his calf’s neck,” causing Esther to squeal and run around the room, anticipating kisses from her dad.

I sat cross-legged leaning up against the wardrobe with a sippy cup of warm milk in hand, watching as they finished up this part of the nightly routine. I must have had a strange look on my face because Afshin lifted his head from the floor where he was now laying, curious to know what I was thinking. The book had ended with smooches all over and somehow Esther had gotten herself on top of him, each leg straddling his stomach, no doubt retaliating for the kissing. If the effects of my husband’s life of displacement had touched her in any way, it didn’t show. She forced him to lay back down with a shove and a mischievous smile and continued bouncing. 

I didn’t know how to describe what I was thinking, watching my family play and laugh together in this room in the middle of Turkey. It was this realization that life was happening right here, right now. Our tiny family of three was all under one roof, growing and blossoming, making memories, and settling into a calm pattern. These are the good old days. I felt a pinprick of guilt needling its way in as soon as that thought crossed my mind, like, if I acknowledged that this moment was good—a joyful little morsel amid hardship—that it would somehow seem as if I’m dumping aside any hope for the future. 

When I do spot a sliver of delight while living here—whether it be posting a photo of our family on the beach or a video of us at a playground on a warm day—I’m met with well-intentioned friends commenting on how it seems we are blooming where we are planted or how we’ve let God use us in this hard season. I cringe at these comments. Is this what our life looks like from the outside?

I think of how one-half of my family is living in displacement. When I post videos of our weekend vacation, what people don’t see is the stress it took to make that happen. No one sees the permission my husband had to get from the police to leave our province—something never guaranteed for a refugee and is a stark reminder that they have no rights here. My mother-in-law applied three times and got denied each time. No reason was given as to why and she had to stay behind. There was also the stress of evading police check points along the way to the beach. Police are notoriously fickle, even with the right papers, and could send my husband back to our city at any point. No one sees how he’s missing half an eyebrow in those seaside pictures—an outward sign of how he copes with the inward turmoil and trauma of being displaced.

Blooming we are not.

It takes a special kind of privilege to be able to bloom where you are planted, to grow and thrive and accept your circumstances. In fact, you cannot bloom where you are planted if your feet are being violently forced into the ground by great powers above you. You cannot bloom where you are planted if the soil is poor and shallow.

What good is a weekend vacation when the waiting is indefinite and no country wants you? To make someone wait indefinitely is one of the most twisted abuses of power, is it not? This is the life of a refugee.

And this is the source of my guilt.

***

Every day after her nap, Esther and I walk to the park behind our home. It was unusually windy this particular afternoon, while we squatted under a group of trees, examining the dried leaves already on the ground. Autumn had made itself known and the trees were a smattering of golds and scarlets that weren’t there a week ago. 

We fell into a simple game of me picking out a leaf (the crunchier the better) for Esther, where she then crushed it in her hand and disposed of the little pieces in a pile by her feet. Back and forth we went. But we’d stop our game each time the wind picked up. The already fragile leaves clinging desperately to their branches could not withstand the gusts of wind, causing a flurry of color to rain down around us. The leaves came alive, collectively chattering as they skittered across the pavement, creating a welcome mat on the ground for the coming colder, barren months.

I’m not one to use the word “magical” to describe everyday things often, but I’d use that word now. To watch my child’s eyes in wonderment, her hands outstretched, as a great whirlwind of leaves circled us, was magic. 

Maybe this was autumn’s way of laughing even though it was grieving summer’s end. Maybe each time the wind picked up, the swirl of leaves, dropping like pieces of confetti, was a gift from a season before and a gift for a season to come. 

Whatever it was, I found myself thinking those guilt-drenched words again: These are the good old days.

It takes a lot to face this monster head-on and shout that the good and the beautiful are happening right now. But I’m learning I can spot a sliver of good now while still honoring the grief I carry for our imaginary future. My hope for a life beyond this one still clings to me, like a child to his mother’s hem. Those thirty-one boxes aren’t going anywhere. They’re stacked in a basement an ocean away, waiting for our homecoming—a gift for a season to come.

Looking for the good doesn’t mean you’re blooming or that you’ve given up hope for a better tomorrow. It may mean you’re only surviving, remaining dormant until conditions change. Like the crunchy leaves raining down on us, it may look like a tiny spark of magic in a desolate season.

It feels scary to acknowledge the good during the hard, but here’s your permission to do it anyway. May we not overlook the magic in the everyday as we stretch our eyes forward. But may we also not lose hope for a future safe and secure. 

Hold both the good and the hard in all their discomfort and awkwardness. I’ll do the same. While yearning for a world that has yet to exist, we’ll be over here, making room for delight to thread its way in.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

This post is part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to view the next post in the series “Unmasking Fears”.

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Shaking the House

Most mornings we eat breakfast all together on the couch. My husband makes a big batch of oatmeal, portioning out some with mashed bananas and a swirl of peanut butter into a neon plastic bowl. We eat our breakfast in the living room because—why not? We’re living through a pandemic and it’s nice to have simple traditions—and also because our kitchen is chilly this time of year, the circular vent in the window letting in a draft from the balcony that leaves the room freezing by morning.

Oatmeal for breakfast has become a little symbol of our intercultural relationship. My husband had only eaten oats in savory Persian soups and stews before we got married. His breakfasts consisted of fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, soft cheeses, olives, honey, crusty bread, and hot tea. When we were first married, I introduced him to cold cereal (which now looks pretty dismal compared to the bounty that comes with Middle Eastern breakfasts). Once, after watching me pour milk over Special K, he looked at me expectantly and asked—a now-famous line I’ve never let him live down—how long we had to wait until it was ready to eat.

We head to the couch with the oatmeal and a baby on our hip. In between sips of coffee and catching up on the news, we spoon breakfast into our daughter’s mouth. She’s always sans bib these days because we can’t seem to find one she’ll tolerate. Even the most intricately clasped bib she’s figured out how to rip off her neck. Every time, without a doubt, oatmeal ends up everywhere.

She’ll scoot across the couch and reach her hand into my husband’s bowl, fingers scooping up sticky oatmeal before we can stop her. She’ll swat a loaded spoon away from her mouth sending oatmeal flying. She’ll reach for the couch’s armrest, rubbing oatmeal into the upholstery. She’ll swipe her gluey hands across her forehead, into her eyelashes, on her ears, and somehow the back of her head, a spot we won’t discover until bedtime.

This happens almost every day and we’ve come to expect it. We have baby wipes strategically stashed around the house for these sorts of things. When we’ve finished our oatmeal, we rise like soldiers on duty to wipe off the baby, the couch, ourselves. And we do it all again the next morning.

My husband, a certified neat-freak, likes to tell our expecting friends that having a baby is like a bomb going off. Bringing home a tiny infant from the hospital is a head-whipping sort of thing. It’s no secret they come with mountains of unfolded laundry, piles of dirty diapers, and never-ending dishes. We’ve had to surrender to the chaos to save our sanity. So it’s not unusual to see my husband let our daughter reach for his nose during dinner, her hands caked with spaghetti sauce, smearing his face with her mashed-up food. Yesterday we casually wiped away squished strawberry remains that had somehow found their way on top of our bedspread. Today I was throwing toys into a basket while she napped and spotted soggy Cheerios under the coffee table. Without a second thought, I popped them into my mouth (gross, I know). 

I think this is how the last year has felt for a lot of us, like an explosion. New baby or not, certainty, predictability, routines—taking ours and our loved ones’ health for granted, even—has gone out the window.

Uncertainty tends to leave a mess in its wake.

This trauma we all have collectively felt this year mirrors pretty closely what my family and I have felt over the last four years. Our plans have been at the mercy of government mandates. We’ve had to share more milestones and celebrations over video calls than we’d like. After giving birth to my daughter, a phone call was placed across the world to my parents where they witnessed the first moments of their grandchild’s life through a tiny screen held in my husband’s hand. Our hopes of being reunited with family feel like it’s slipping further and further out of reach. We wait as the ending of our grief continues to feel uncertain.

It’s no coincidence the first day of spring coincides with the first anniversary of the pandemic. As we limp toward twelve months of living through a long, cold winter (some longer and colder than others), the light stretches out just a little bit later after dinner these days. There are blue, cloudless skies, the chirp of birds—but maybe old patches of snow are still sitting around, too. It feels a little messy, this in-between time.

In Persian culture, the celebration of the first day of spring is called Nowruz. Those who celebrate, spend weeks leading up to the Spring Equinox deep cleaning their home. This ritual is called khoneh takooni in Farsi, which translates to “shaking the house.” In the neighborhoods where many Iranians in our area live, large carpets are lugged out of homes, waiting to be scrubbed clean and left to dry while hanging out of third-floor windows or draped over gates and stone walls. This tradition, among many others for Persians, celebrates spring conquering winter, light squashing out darkness—order overcoming chaos.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could shake out our homes and things would be set right? The fractured parts of our routines would come back together with a snap of a rug, a swipe across a windowpane, a broom over a floor. But life is messy, and not everyone gets a tidy story. I’ve learned that lesson over and over again.

Superstitions are common in this part of the world, and it is said that if something breaks—a plate, a carton of eggs, a glass pitcher—it’s a sign of good luck. Bad news was coming your way, but the shattered pieces have pushed the misfortune out. The accidental mess laying at your feet has protected your home.

I’m not sure oatmeal smashed into every crevice of our couch counts as something breaking according to the superstition. It is a mess though. As we stagger on towards another year of living in a pandemic, and for our family, another year across an ocean from loved ones, waiting for policies to change, we lean on each other when our steps began to falter. We give grace when we feel tattered. We work to understand when we’re bruised.

As I forge ahead in motherhood, shouldering layer upon layer of uncertainty, I will not stop looking for evidence of a life well-lived. There are beautiful moments tucked away in this messy story, broken pieces that when put together form something new. And maybe that something new will turn into something good.

Sticky breakfast food is a sign of life—a good life. So are piles of diapers and laundry and dishes. In this in-between time, may we work to acknowledge both the broken and the beauty. And who knows? Maybe the mess will bring a little luck, too.

This post is part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to view the next post in this series “Make a Mess”.

Photo by Orlova Maria on m

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Notes from Lockdown

The sun beats on my skin, causing my upper arms to turn light pink. We had just finished watching a movie from start to finish and it wasn’t even lunch. We can’t leave our home for the next two days, so the three of us spend time on the balcony, soaking up the unusually strong sun, and trying to get that vitamin d and fresh air any way we can.

It’s been three months now of full weekend lockdowns, part of strict precautions Turkey has taken to decrease COVID cases, although there are rumors restrictions will lighten with the onset of tourist season next month. For my Enneagram 3 husband, Afshin, being forced to stay inside for the weekend has handed him a convenient excuse to disregard any semblance of routine and trash the to-do lists, knowing everyone else around him is forced to do the same (as a 9, I’ll take any excuse to chill). Saturdays and Sundays, we throw out any sort of agenda, graze throughout the day, don’t cook dinner, and watch every Mark Wahlberg movie on Netflix (there’s a million and also they’re all the same and also maybe I’m getting him mixed up with Matt Damon).

We spread out a baby quilt—one that made the trek from my parents’ home in the US to our home in Turkey, tucked into the bottom of a suitcase—on the concrete floor of the balcony. My daughter, Esther, sits and plays with an assortment of things: a fridge magnet from a local restaurant, a couple of toy rattles, a near-empty baby wipe packet, and a pacifier we paid entirely too much for only for her to reject. I’m next to her cracking open walnut shells, two pounds worth we received from our landlord last fall.

February so far has brought temperatures that feel much more like late spring than the bleak winter. While winter’s in Turkey are mild compared to what I’ve experienced back in the Upper Midwest, typically a thin layer of white would have blanketed the ground by now, the quiet stillness settling in for just a while longer. But this year we’ve only had snow once or twice, each time melting before morning. Our daughter’s only experience with it was standing by the window watching the large flakes fall before going to sleep. But with temperatures well above freezing these past couple of months, the grass has already begun to turn green, birds chirp, and we bask in the sun.

“We should lower her crib soon,” I say, eyeing our baby who’s leaning forward, anxious to crawl. Afshin sits next to us eating last night’s leftover rice and chicken straight from the frying pan. “The whole crib needs to be taken apart to do it, so I need your help,” I continue, taking a hammer to another walnut.

“There are no shoulds,” he says in mock seriousness as he hands Esther a piece of shredded chicken. “This is a democracy. We can do what we want.”

He’s teasing me, exasperated by my American paranoia and obsession with safety. Middle Easterners take a much more relaxed approach to parenting I’ve come to (mostly) accept, and if it were up to him, our baby would probably be trying her hand at hammering open walnut shells right now.

It’s a joke, but I know his underlying thoughts: We could leave any day now.

And more than that, the lowering of the crib marks the passing of time. What was once a newborn is now an infant who sits and will soon be a crawler and climber. Time rolls forward in a place we don’t want to be.

I inhale deeply, feeling the sun on my eyelids. Setting the pan aside, he picks up Esther and they go to the edge of the balcony to watch the neighbor kids play in their yard below. She blows raspberries—a new skill she’s learned that soothes her teething gums—and Afshin mimics her sounds. The streets are quiet, save for a lonely police car or city truck rumbling by. The clothes on the line blow lazily back and forth, the sun’s rays bleaching out the tomato stains on baby clothes.

Afshin has described the tension in our house like the drums from Jumanji. Suddenly, with the recent rescinding of unfair immigration policies, we have found ourselves thrown back into living in the short-term, the war-like drumming intensifying as each day passes. We lustily eye the suitcases on top of our wardrobes, scour job listings in the US, and research how much rent we can afford.

Many family and friends have asked if we are feeling more hopeful now than we have in the last four years. And we are. But I also know hope can be a tricky thing. In an instant it can grow big, ballooning up in our hearts, putting a spring in our step, causing us to lean forward in anticipation. But just as quickly as it swells, it can burst when we dare to take too big of a breath. It can shatter and deflate, forcing us to slump back in our seats, completely gutted, as each week passes with no news or updates on our immigration case.

Hope slips and slides, and I never know how tight or loose my grip on it should be.

I suppose that’s why we do not put our hope in elusive things, in principalities or politicians, but the one, true Hope, firm and secure. And yet I’m realistic enough to know that life isn’t always so simple, that canned answers (even when they are wholly true) don’t always solve the problem at hand.

I read once that the opposite of hope is desperation. I won’t argue whether or not that’s true, but hope and desperation are more intertwined than we think—like two twisted vines from the same root. Where one ends and one begins doesn’t matter. And yet it is there, in the nuance of life, in complications and competing emotions, the Creator resides. God, the Divine, works in these crossroads.

Afshin goes back inside to start a second movie, presumably where Wahlberg (Damon?) plays another manly-man American hero. I bounce the baby on my lap, her babbles echo off the walls of the neighboring home. She blows more raspberries. I crack open more walnuts.

There’s a handful of hot air balloons suspended in the sky beyond our balcony, although I’m not sure why, as there are no tourists, and we’re supposed to be on lockdown. We watch them for a while. Maybe it was the rhythmic cracking of the walnuts or the lack of any sort of routine, but life felt okay for the moment, despite the drum beats and uncertainty vibrating in the background of our home. Being surrounded by the balloons and the sun and a baby who needs her crib lowered, I felt peace—something that isn’t always so easy to find these days.

A friend once sent me the song Time by John Lucas. I’m thankful that when words fail during prayers, we can live on the borrowed faith of friends and writers and thinkers who have walked similar paths. The lyrics to this song bounce in my head while on the balcony, waiting out the lockdown, grasping at hope and peace.

My heart has known the winters
And my feet have known the snow
But mine eyes have seen the glory
Of a seed begin to grow

There is a time to uproot, darling
But most days just hold on tight
For there’s a time for darkness, honey
But dawn will always beat the night

Sometimes death will come calling
When you’ve been good and warned
And other times its cold hands will cradle
Dreams yet to be born

There is a time to dance on sorrow
And a time to kiss her cheek
There is a time to mourn in silence
But justice aches to hear you speak

And I don’t know the end, or tomorrow’s story
But I have found the one who gives me rest
And I will make my bed in His promises
For He holds true when nothing’s left

There is a time when laughter will echo
Through your halls of peace
But war is known to change your locks
And carry off the family keys

There is a time for healing and pain
A time for drought and a time for rain
There is a time for everything
Until we crown the risen King

So crown Him in your mourning
And crown Him in your laughter
And crown Him when it all turns dark

Crown Him when you bury
And crown Him when you marry
And crown Him when your faith finds a spark

Crown Him for He’s faithful
And crown Him for He’s worthy
And crown Him for He is good

Crown Him for His promises
Cut through the blindness
Of children that have barely understood

The beauty that has come
And the beauty yet to come
And the beauty that is yours and that is mine
And that death produces life
And that we are made alive

By the King who paints beauty with time


Photo by noah eleazar on Unsplash

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The House Surrender Built

one day we’ll tell her about the way light
through the bedroom window
danced
across
her cheek

how it looked
a little
like Hope

but first

how the four concrete walls of this house felt like a cell
a place we didn’t want to be
in a country we didn’t want to live

how we unpacked our suitcases
reluctantly
and made room
for an ever-present, never-leaving, uninvited guest
named Waiting

how it was only a house
a place we slept and ate and buried our dreams

how we memorized the creaks in the floors and cracks in the ceilings

how we dug our nails
deep
into
leaving

how we bled
desperately ignoring
Waiting

and then

we will tell her how we brought fresh life
through the doors of that house
not at all like we imagined

how a baby caused us to relax our grip
and to make room for Hope

caused us to lean forward
with every fiber of our being

caused us to speculate
who she’ll be
where we’ll be
now, a mystery

how we brushed off dormant dreams
and replaced them with flowers
dug deep into the dirt

with picture frames
and books
and tiny toys
all the while still looking ahead

how we stepped over the creaks
as she napped
took notice of the sunrise on one side and the sunset on the other
of the kitchen
balcony
and mountains

welcomed it
accepted it

how we saw the speckled light
bouncing off the mirror
creating a rainbow swirling across the cheek
of our chubby
ray
of
Hope

how light caused us to breathe

to Surrender

to make a home here
Hope here
while we
wait
here


This post is part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to view the next post in this series “280 Words”.

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Playing with Fire

There’s a saying that most of marriage is shouting, ‘What?’ to each other from other rooms. If I weren’t reading this text message at such a serious moment in my marriage, I would have laughed at the tired relationship stereotype coming true, like leaving the toilet seat up or the inability to agree on a restaurant.

I repeat the immigration attorney’s text to my husband as I stand outside the bathroom of our Turkish apartment, my voice competing with the gushing shower head’s echo bouncing off the tiles. I had taken my first positive pregnancy test a few days earlier, and my hand inadvertently touches my stomach while I struggle to push down the anxiety creeping over my chest and up my neck.  

“He wrote,”—I take a deep breath to steady my voice—“‘You will most likely NEVER be able to immigrate to the United States.’” I stare at the glowing screen and the five capitalized letters. Each word from the attorney’s message punctuates the darkness of the hallway. The finality of the sentence chills the air despite the steam coming from the shower.

For the entirety of our relationship, my husband’s immigration process has attached itself like an extra appendage. It’s been an unwanted shadow following us everywhere we go. Marrying someone from a country banned from entering the U.S. meant finding ourselves thrown amid bureaucratic limbo. It meant being at the mercy of politicians who see others like chess pieces used for their advantage.

Resting my forehead against the bathroom door frame, I wonder why we can never feel joy with no other competing emotion. I think of the new life I’m carrying and of the celebratory calls made to my parents on the other side of the Atlantic. Grief always seems to thread itself over and under life’s happy moments.

With my eyes closed, I brace myself for a response from the shower. When there is none, I’m half-convinced he still hasn’t heard me but I know he has. The little shred of hope deflates from within us both and circles down the drain…continue reading on Coffee + Crumbs

I am so honored to have this essay chosen as the first place winner in Coffee + Crumbs Love After Babies contest.

Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash