It’s still winter in Queensland. Though we’re now back across the Pacific and across the equator, the scene that flashes across my mind is an unremarkable one. I am standing over the laundry sink, the Queensland sun streaming in the window, scrubbing my daughter’s school socks and cursing the fact that she’s once again managed to embed that singularly Aussie red dirt into the fabric.
It was only weeks ago that I was standing there, but it could have been months. It is summer here in Ohio, everything is lush and green and hot and humid, and my sense of place is still suspended. People ask how it is to be back, and my answer is usually a patchy attempt to explain that, while our plane landed weeks ago, I’m still waiting for my feet to hit the ground. We have flipped seasons and calendars (we left mid academic year and are arriving in time to start a new academic year next month). We have moved back into our home only to find that, though it’s unchanged, our habitation of it has. We’ve reconnected with so many family and friends, and it has been overwhelming to hear and see everything that has changed in the past 18 months. And we’ve only just begun to catch up.
Before we’d left, a year–or year and a half–didn’t seem like long. And it’s not, in fact. It flew by. But you know that expression about not stepping in the same river twice? Well, it’s true. I knew things would change while we were gone (including our own views and experiences), even if I didn’t know how. Neither did I know know how the transition back would go.
While in Australia, I had started half a dozen lists in my head of things I didn’t want to forget. They went something like this:
Things I’ll Miss Hearing:
The Aussie accent. Being called “dahl.” Even, dare I say, the screech and song every morning of magpies, cockatiels, lorikeets, rosellas, and cockatoos.
Things I’ll Miss Seeing:
Our friends and neighbours. Gum trees. The ocean. The one-of-a-kind colors of a Queensland sunset sky.
Foods and Drinks I’ll Miss:
Pies. Lemon Lime & Bitters. A really good flat white or mocha being easily available. (I have yet to have a Starbucks coffee since being back, and am in no hurry to reintroduce that brew into my life.) Date scones. The cornucopia of flavour-packed seasonal fruits and veggies, which would require a dedicated blog if I were to name them all.
Our Time in Queensland, Tallied:
Our oldest daughter learned to braid hair. We washed easily over 150 loads of laundry. Our younger daughter saw her first movie in a movie theater. The kids went to their first (and second) circus performance. My husband learned about half a dozen new classes of venomous snake bites to treat. We drove thousands of kilometers…on the left side of the road. I read probably 40 books. Our oldest daughter was introduced to the game of Monopoly. Both older kids fell in love with the game of Trouble. I wrote one book, and a first draft of a second. Our younger daughter’s speech went from the toddler speak that only those closest to her could understand to the very precocious–and intelligible–speech of a preschooler. Our oldest daughter fell in love with soccer. We went, most significantly, from a family of four to a family of five.
That was there. This is here. Here, when I haven’t been trying to return our home to some kind of physical order or to catch up with family and friends, I’ve been swept up in the political discourse currently consuming the societal psyche. It has, in fact, generated a lot of material for a future blog post. But I’m not ready to go there yet. Not until I can more firmly answer the simple question of how I am doing, how we are doing. Not until I can wake up in the morning and plant my feet on the ground with a solid sense of where I am and what I am meant to do that day.
There is a pair of my daughter’s shoes, shed mid-stride, in our entry way. Along the sides and bottom is a coat of that red dirt, picked up on our last trip, in Uluru. I think about wiping the shoes clean, but I am not yet ready to let the red disappear.
It is the first night of the junior school musical at our kids’ school.
While the children prepare with their teachers nearby, parents take the chance to catch up and chat amongst each other. Slowly, we find seats in the covered court that has been transformed into an outdoor theatre of sorts. My neighbour points out the kookaburra singing their song as dusk starts to settle.
I look down at the baby, sleeping beside us. The musical, incidentally, is about the story of Daniel (in the Lion’s Den). I look up and see the nightly path of the flying foxes over the car park beyond the court’s wall. Dusk has deepened.
Our kids parade onto the stage. Along with all the other parents, we snap our photos, beaming.
As the play ends, I am standing several rows back and off to the left rocking the baby, watching the joy on the faces of the kids, parents, and grandparents around us. I am thankful for this perfect evening, when the kids are beaming with pride at their hard work, and we are full of joy. We are all together and healthy, and life is good.
Fast forward to a few days later. It is Orthodox Easter weekend, one of the highlights of our year. This year, we have a newborn who is still nursing and crying often. Getting into the spirit of the services will be hard, a fact we are reconciled to; we know it is just temporary.
We celebrate what parts of the weekend we can with a small and loving congregation in Bundaberg, almost all of us expats, almost all of us far from the family and traditions of home, though those living permanently in Australia are more rooted in a new home and new traditions. A prayer comes to mind from the liturgy: a prayer for the “strangers, travelers, and visitors.” A prayer for us.
My husband and I have a few moments to pray and reflect on the significance of what we are celebrating. That’s something. But it is not the profound experience that comes from the culmination of a whole week of services and reflections. I don’t realize until it doesn’t come that I was still hoping for that penetrating joy.
Absent is the usual gathering of family, and with it, the chatter of my sisters, cousins, and in-laws as we congregate at home after a long Good Friday service. Absent is the pre-dawn awakening on Saturday and the most poignant liturgy of the year. Absent are my mother’s inimitable stuffed grape leaves, and the other delightful dishes that mark this feast. Absent is my father’s invitation to each of us to have a bit of wine with our dinner, telling us a little about the bottle he has selected.
This Easter weekend, our home isn’t pervaded with the smells of roasted, stewed, and breaded meats. I think to try and replicate some of the dishes that might make it feel more like a feast, but I don’t know how to make any but the simplest of them. Besides, even if I did, I lack the energy to prepare such a meal.
We call and FaceTime our family back home, the pace of the weekend out of sync with theirs. We call on Saturday, when they are still celebrating Good Friday. We talk on Monday, when they are still celebrating the feast.
What should have been one of the most joyous points in our year was understated this year, and what might have been a mundane weekday night attending a school event wasn’t. It was perfect.
I am glad I was in the state of mind to see that perfection and to feel such joy. I could easily have been distracted and wishing that Daniel was past this phase, or stressed about how to feed him and keep him quiet while the musical was on. But I wasn’t.
It is perhaps one of my greatest lessons from our time here: allow yourself to experience joy. Be open to it always. Sometimes it will be in the most mundane moments of the day. A pure and joyous smile from one of the kids. An unspoiled landscape. A conversation with my husband over a cup of coffee, perfectly prepared.
Be open to joy, for it won’t always come in the ways you expect.
Recently, I came across an unfamiliar word: koselig. It is the Norwegian word for coziness, and it resonated with me. I’m not sure why. It’s certainly not because I have any desire to be anywhere near anything wool, fleece, or fuzzy. Indeed not: it’s currently 28C/81F.
But this post isn’t about the weather. It’s about koselig, and the fact that as a couple and as a family, we are currently at this odd juncture of waiting for a pretty significant change to come into our lives (in the form of baby #3) and at the same time anticipating a settling in. A settling in, or a “koselig:” a finality, a completeness that brings a psychological coziness.
This time around, parenthood is surrender. I know there is little we can control about this child: how good a sleeper s/he will be, or how loud a crier. Later, what and who will this little person of ours love? Who will s/he become? (There is, of course, a lot we can and will influence, teach, discipline, etc., but from where I stand now, the unknowns overwhelm that which is within our control.) How will our older kids adjust to the change in our family dynamics? How, exactly, will our day-to-day lives change? I’m a lot more at peace with not knowing the answer to this last question especially than I would have been even one year ago. That has everything to do with trusting that God will see us through whatever this new chapter brings.
“Koselig” is also reminiscent, for me, of rest, and comfort, and a sense of being sheltered. These are sensations that are too often lacking in the do-something, be-somewhere nature of our lives. We–and I’m not sure whether by “we” I mean Americans, most humans, or simply people like me–seem to always be seeking the extraordinary and exciting. But I would posit that the richest moments of our lives, and the ones which we look back on when we need comfort or the memory of happiness, are moments that are ordinary, homey even.
Simple pleasures: swimsuits drying on a clothes line after a day at the beach, a mighty hug and good night kiss from a child, the smell of a home-cooked meal when you walk in the door.
What if we learned to savour these things, instead of always seeking the next sensational thrill? That thrill, depending on one’s personality and preferences, can be the latest purchase from a favourite store, or that newest, rancor-filled political article, or the next meal or vacation on a recent “best-of” list, or any number of other thrills. At some point, I think excitement and novelty became overrated, and small, ordinary joys became under-rated.
As we stand at the edge of this new chapter in our lives, my hope is that we–I–will learn to right that balance and embrace the koselig that is waiting right in front of us.
So Australia may be far from a lot of you, but in spirit we are not so far away that we can buffer ourselves from the realities of this world. My email and newsfeed have shown in past days, over and over, the orange jumpsuits and faces of the 21 men who were beheaded by terrorists in Libya last week. I could not continue to talk about my own journey without acknowledging those whose earthly journey has just ended–and another one begun.
For those of you who may have missed this, all but one of these men, mostly young men in their 20s and 30s, had crossed the border into Libya from impoverished hometowns in Egypt so that they could work and send money home to their families (the last man, a Ghanaian Christian believed to be Matthew Arayiga, was also in the area for work). They were kidnapped by members of ISIS (aka Daesh) at the end of December and in early January. Reports of those who witnessed the kidnappings say these men were targeted because they were Christians (evidenced by crosses tattood on the inside of their wrists, a common practice among Copts). I can’t bring myself to watch the video, but the accounts I’ve heard of the justifications Daesh announce in it make no sense: it was in retaliation for the killing of Osama Bin Laden (as if these men had anything to do with it), it was because Egypt has been fighting the Daesh and these men were members of the hostile Egyptian church (“the nation of the cross”). What’s clear to me are a few things:
a) they were targeted because they were Christians, and because, with the exception of one, they were Egyptian Christians
b) their deaths, though untimely and brutal, demonstrate a faith that leaves me speechless, and
c) that those deaths are no less heartbreaking, regardless of what they demonstrate.
This story first caught my attention, of course, because I am a Copt. It also caught my attention because my faith in God and in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ are central to who I am. And it was central to who these men were, too. So central, that by all accounts, their last words as their lives were ending were prayers and pronouncements of that faith. All they would have had to do is renounce the God of Christianity and who they believe Jesus Christ to be, and these extremists would, by the dictates of their own laws, have had to spare these men’s lives.
Imagine for a moment being cut off from everyone and everything that can protect you, knowing that you will undoubtedly die unless you say some words. “They’re just words,” your sense of self-preservation might shout, “say them and take them back later when it’s safe to do so!” How strongly would you have to reject the idea that you could deny your Creator (Matthew 10:33)? What faith would it take to give these men the courage to go through with this? [What] do you believe so deeply that you would die rather than deny it? Could you do have done this? Could I?
Yet this story is also about these men who were human beings with loves and personalities and dreams and families. Because of this horrendous act, mothers and fathers will be grieving, wives will be widowed, brothers and sisters will grow old without their siblings, children will grow up without their fathers, friends without their lives’ companions. These men were in Libya to try to provide for their families, and the guilt and anger their families and friends must feel now–well, I won’t pretend to understand. My heart breaks and my minds goes numb just thinking about such sorrow.
It is, incidentally, this profound and senseless loss, this brutality, that has prompted such universal discussion about human rights. It’s too obvious to state that innocent people, civilians who have kept to their own matters, should not be killed by others trying to make a statement (political, religious, or otherwise). But we do not yet live in an ideal world, where we all live full and fulfilled lives.
We Christians talk a lot as about treating this life as only the beginning of a life of the spirit with God, after this earthly life is over. (The saying that we’re spiritual beings having a physical experience has always rung true for me.) We all know our days on this earth are numbered. Many of us forget that, attaching too much importance to careers, or health, or countless other attractions that this life can hold. These men, I’m sure, did not want to die with so much and so many to live for, but like so many Copts before them, they died knowing that this was not the end, and with this, I will try to be at peace.
I was having a conversation with a colleague recently about the decreasing ability people apparently have to carry on civil conversation when they disagree. Do we know how to have difficult conversations? As a society, do we have a lot of opportunities to practice having these conversations?
The cynical side of me says no: just look at all the talking heads and political pundits talking over each other and cutting down each others’ points. It is good entertainment: having made more jabs than the other person, one pundit can come out the clear winner. We like clear winners in a world that is otherwise gray. More personally, look at how we tend to drift towards people who think like us, and scoff, roll our eyes, or shut down when we encounter opinions we don’t agree with. (I’m generalizing of course: not everyone is this uncomfortable with difference.)
But that’s my second point. My first point is that, when I was having this conversation with my colleague, he said something that started me thinking. He said (and I’m paraphrasing) there is nothing wrong with having these disagreements, because there is not always an answer that is acceptable to everyone. Sometimes we value compromise and everyone getting along so much that we don’t allow for the fact that people are fundamentally different, and that we should not try to conform everyone to fit one way of thinking. Of course I agree with that, but my question is this: is there any benefit to even having dialogues about these differences? Not for the purpose of changing one side’s mind, but for the purpose of really understanding how each side reached the conclusions that it has reached? And if so, how do we do it in a way that is constructive, not destructive?
Or maybe he meant that sometimes one side’s position turns out to be just wrong. In which case, let the facts speak for themselves; no reason to get upset or self-righteous over it. The problem, of course, lies in how the facts speak. The adjectives that are chosen and which statistics are provided can lead to two completely different statements of the “facts.” How any of us understand a situation is colored by what we knew about that subject already, what we want to believe about it, and how it is presented to us. It is the rare and rigorous mind that is able to distinguish the facts from the personal beliefs associated with those facts.
So given that, I think it is all the more important that we as a society learn to have dialogues expressing why our opinions are what they are in a setting where others will disagree. This is hard, I realize. It’s much easier and more comfortable to stay where we know we will hear our opinions reaffirmed. But the older we get, the more, I hope, we realize that while there are some really wacky ideas out there, most opinions with which we disagree are not complete nonsense, but rather that their holders have looked at the same set of facts through a very different, and often not entirely absurd, lens. When we start to have conversations that don’t reaffirm our beliefs, but rather challenge them, that is when we really begin to think. Many possibilities emerge, including that our mind is not changed, but we now better understand and can articulate why we believe what we believe, or that we realize we have been looking at the facts with a very tinted lens, or that we believe the same thing as the other person but express it differently.
So back to my second point. How do we actually have these difficult conversations? Even if we can be calm and speak respectfully, how do we respond when someone else is simply throwing out insults? I think there are a few key principles to follow:
1) Focus on the ideas and arguments being presented, and avoid insults which serve no purpose but to alienate or rile up the other side. I know a person whose m.o. in most debates is to push buttons by insulting and accusing. It’s entirely annoying and completely unproductive.
2) No ad hominem attacks. Insist that others avoid the same. Listen to the words, not the speaker. Just because you don’t like someone, it doesn’t mean that what they have to say is worthless.
3) Seek to understand. Check your assumptions about what a person means, and ask clarifying questions with a mind to truly understanding the source of their belief/anger/frustration.
4) Listen. If you are moderating a discussion, make sure to create space for quieter voices to speak. If there is no moderator, be deliberate about not dominating the conversation with restatements of your position, but rather encouraging other(s) to explain theirs.
5) Know thyself. If you are speaking with someone who you cannot tolerate, or if you find yourself defending a position you are not sure you want to defend, walk away. Unless you are at a point where you really can (or at least want to) achieve understanding (see #3), you are more likely to do more damage than good.
What other principles are important? I’d love to hear your thoughts…