REFLECTIONS FROM EGYPT
Bananas for Sale
Today is my writing day and so far I have spent four hours with only the initial draft of a poem to show for it. And a poem about a banana! What is going on? Maybe I need to return to writing only when inspired in the moment, rather than a weekly time set aside for reflection. And of those four hours of poetic pondering I’m sure three were spent preparing to write: playing the piano, reading, answering a phone call from a friend, doing laundry, patting the head of my old dog, Pepsi. She’s not having trouble focusing on her purpose of the day; she’s napping with fierce intensity. Why can’t I get moving? Before I know it my son, Treston, will arrive home from school after having had a very active productive day of learning, writing, reading, interacting with friends and teachers and he will ask me, as he so kindly does: How was your day? What did you do today? How can I tell him that all I have to show from my much treasured and anticipated weekly writing day is a poem draft about a banana? Actually I’m sure he will sense the humor in it all and assure me that all is not lost.
How is it that I have found inspiration today on the theme of a lowly banana? Yes, it’s true that banana trees are my favorite trees, stemming back from my happy childhood days in Africa. And of course yesterday I was touched to tears by a trip to my street corner in search of local bananas to buy. I was so upset the other day by the local grocer who tried to sell me bananas at triple the price. Wisely, I kindly resisted his outrageous sales tactics, after discovering they were imported from half way around the world, when here in our own country of Egypt for just a little more effort I could secure some of the sweetest bananas in the world. So maybe they are smaller and less perfectly shaped and bearing a few signs of dark spotting here and there. But is the essence of a banana really about its outer peel?
Before the event of Egypt’s revolution all donkey and food carts had been banned from the bustling upper-class realms of our section of Cairo. No official explanation had been given but I wonder if the need for legal permits or a thriving bribery system had hindered such business. At any rate, just recently I had seen a banana merchant appear for the first time just down the street from our apartment. There wasn’t enough room on the road to stop and buy his bananas while driving a car because traffic would most certainly pile up into the nightmare of a banana cart gridlock. The only option would be to approach on foot.
My first attempt was futile; I found the banana cart abandoned. I asked for help at the outdoor flower shop next to the fully loaded banana cart, but with no luck. The flower shop owner kindly ended his telephone call, asked his employee to stop watering the plants and they searched around for the banana cart merchant, but there was no sign of him anywhere. They shrugged their shoulders, thought he was probably off having a tea break and suggested I come back “bukra, en sha’allah” – tomorrow, God willing.
The next day I peered out from my balcony in the direction of the banana cart corner but couldn’t quite see that far down the street. I took Pepsi for her usual morning walk and then it appeared off in the distance: the peddler and his cart. Being a large and scary looking dog I decided it would hardly work to drag dear Pepsi along for the transaction, and in her elderly years these days about all she can manage on a walk is to drag herself to the spot of green outside our building and lie down to watch the cars go by. I returned to the apartment, found the largest carrying bag I could find and set on my way. By the time I reached the busy corner, the flower shop staff had seen me and had alerted the banana man of my approach. He greeted me warmly and expectantly while finishing up a sale to a day laborer who had purchased just one very small banana. I smiled at the man with his one banana and wished it would be appropriate for me to buy him a whole bag to share with his other hardworking colleagues that day. Once he was on his way I showed the banana man my bag, gave him what now seemed like a large quantity of banana money and explained I wanted a full bag of bananas and no change. He beamed with understanding.
First things first, he insisted that I try one of his well-cultivated fruits. I can’t say that I was especially hungry at the time, but it was very clear that I would be eating one of his bananas. He gently peeled a perfectly selected specimen and watched me intently as I ate. What an odd place to stand eating a banana. In addition to the banana man, my audience included the outdoor flower shop staff, a bus unloading its people, cars and walkers rushing by all accented by the background sound of a train approaching on the railroad tracks right next to us. Surreal. Sometimes I wish I could wander around Cairo with an invisible camera hooked to my forehead to save and then play back in moments of despair, when I am longing for a lot less concrete and a lot more of quiet green nature; these scenes would remind me of this present moment, a crazy but deep sharing of life in all its colors.
Somehow I was able to savor that sweet offering of a banana in spite of the chaos surrounding me and because of the generosity of the hands that gave it to me. Before I left for home, the banana man, Amr, formally introduced himself, gratefully shook my hand and said he would always be there when bananas were needed. I walked home filled with wonder. My building boab had enjoyably watched the banana transaction from afar and was delighted to share in the fruit I offered him. Creation ever present in a peel: sun, rain, tended earth. Creation ever present in people: generosity, goodness, joy.
Beyond Comfort Zones
Why does a writer have to be a public speaker? Long forgotten are the eloquently stated words of Ernest Hemingway, “A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it.” I couldn’t agree more. My husband couldn’t agree less. But then he is a natural public speaker; a man of words and vibrant elocution, he thrives in the realm of public verbal interaction. The more people the more energy. Nerves play no role in the matter. I admire such gifts but cannot relate.
My first ever radio interview following the release of my first book was completely nerve racking, flinging me far beyond the borders of my relished comfort zone. It was to be a telephone interview, beamed into the UK from my flat in Cairo and, thankfully, prerecorded. There was no certainty they would even air it. Yet when the scheduled morning of the interview arrived I banned my entire family from the house, my large calming dog Pepsi being the only exception, and prayed diligently for mercy and strength. With the high decibel noise levels of Cairo there wasn’t a room in our flat where I could escape background noise, shouting, honking, or screeching car brakes, appropriately mirroring my own loss of calm in the face of a comfort zone inevitably slipping beyond my control. The interviewer turned out to be incredibly kind and encouraging but my voice sounded high and squeaky and extremely American. I did, just barely, survive the interview and was wholeheartedly assured by my familial fan club that no future interviews would be quite so dreadful.
An entire year passed quietly by until one evening I was on my computer opening up my email and noticed a message with the subject “interview request.” I hastily jumped to the conclusion that it was a request for my husband, as he had been giving numerous “live from Cairo” interviews due to heightened interest in Egypt after the country’s dramatic revolution. While I was in the process of opening up the email I called to my husband, “Hey you have another,” and then left my sentence dangling in silence. It was a message from my UK publisher. Would a certain date be convenient for a “live from Cairo” radio interview? Me?
Why me? Could I suggest my husband instead? Could I say no? Had the promise I’d made to myself to walk through “open doors” expired? My husband sauntered into the room, summed up the situation instantly and soon a wide grin spread across his entire person. Ugh. My promised expiration date had just been extended. Of course he knew I would dig in my heels and protest and point out all the excuses I could come up with, first and foremost being a disposition of terror in the face of such vulnerable public exposure, second being zero self-confidence. To avoid future anguish I would now have to ghostwrite my next book. I’m certain radio stations don’t interview ghosts.
In response to his cheerful, “That’s great!” my mind immediately flashed to the scene of Moses and his burning bush. I could feel the heat. I could picture its modern day floral descendant in full bloom nearby at St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai. There it was expertly cared for and rested in state as a symbolic historic reminder of God’s voice and presence from time immemorial. I’d already bonded with Jonah and his call to Ninevah way too many times in my initial attempt to run from our move to Cairo years earlier. Now I was feeling very close to Moses. I knew exactly where he was coming from when he put up his self questioning protests to God. And I know he took his shoes off because he felt the ground was holy, but I’m also guessing he must have sensed he would soon be pleading for mercy and needing all the humble visual aids he could muster up. So what if he likely had a speech impediment. No excuse. So did King George VI. At least Moses had the advantage of leadership experience among herds of sheep and was raised in the public eye of Pharaoh’s court. I had absolutely no aspirations for anything in the publically recognized realm of life. I am a writer, not a public radio interviewee. If I had something to say I could say it on paper. I would willingly flex to article length requests, short deadlines, even a written interview if asked. No problem. But that was not what my burning bush email was requesting. The first time I read through the message its voice was amicable and polite, until I realized it was directed at me. By the tenth read through its voice was booming, shouting, and in all capital letters.
But what choice did I have? And what was I so afraid of anyway? Lack of control? Yes. Potential failure? Yes. Certain humiliation? Definitely. Why was my husband’s comfort zone my high-risk zone? How unfair. Images of all past public humiliations tauntingly marched their way through my memory, bearing down on me like an avalanche of burning desert sand. My earliest haunting public memory was a third grade school speech about Louisa May Alcott. My first several years of education had taken place in rural Africa as the lone student in my mother’s classroom, so having to stand up in front of an entire room full of peers dressed in 19th century garb and speaking with confidence was beyond me. I froze. The whole incident was such a trauma that my memory only ever retained bits and pieces of the episode. Apparently my mother came to the rescue; I remember her finding me in the school restroom hiding my red swollen eyes. She must have delivered quite a powerfully motivating speech to me because the next thing I knew I was back in the classroom, reciting my speech perfectly and being received warmly by a class probably just educated by my kind teacher on how to embrace a child fresh from the jungles of Africa. Years later I saw that teacher again. He shook his head and told me he had never in all his years of teaching seen a student panic in public like I had. I was so paralyzed in fear at the sight of him and the prompted memory that I couldn’t begin to defend myself, or give him the satisfaction of knowing that I had emerged from such failure to become a regularly performing musician.
And here I was again, Moses incarnate, radio interview nightmares looming before me. Back to ground zero, shaking in front of my own burning bush, wanting desperately to put out the inner fire of angst within. I remember an artist friend once describing the difference between painting and performing music. She loved that in painting there is control in the outcome, a determined end, a completion you can step away from and say, “well done” or “it is finished.” In contrast I practice the piano every week for hours on end and with one stray note in our weekly church service I can feel I have negated all my diligent efforts. It’s a pressure I don’t relish, yet when the stray note does not appear and I can relax and pour into the music emotions that words cannot express I feel completely alive, as if part of the created moment, fully present.
Inevitably as a musician there are always war stories to tell. In my case I still remember my fourth grade piano recital when I played a slow melodic Joplin rag tune with fingers flying over the keys at such a rapid pace that it was practically over before it had begun. That night I begged and begged my parents to never make me perform in public again. That melody is still seared into my musical memory and its pace has not slowed down over time. Eventually I convinced my parents to let me switch from piano to harp lessons. Flashing back on my first harp performance still sends an unpleasant residue of adrenaline into my blood stream, far beyond the borders of my comfort zone, yet outwardly I had played with unflappable precision. How can pure pleasure for one person be pure torture for another?
Still one has to allow for growth in life. One step at a time, leaps could be dangerous. And so with no choice at all in the end I acquiesced to the live radio interview. I survived it, barely, and have sworn off them again forever; until my comfort zone boundaries bump up against me again and force me onward. What would we become if we only ever hunkered down in our comfort zone bomb shelters? Patience with oneself, being honest, questioning ones depths, it’s not really all bad, just temporarily painful and terribly uncomfortable. Yet it is a way forward when the time is right, when a burning bush beckons, and when a door swings wide open before you.
An Evening Out on the Town
Paul-Gordon and I were recently invited to the opening night of an art exhibition downtown Cairo to see an Egyptian artist in our church unveil his prolific body of work inspired by Egypt’s revolution. The vast number of canvases alone was staggering. How on earth had he found time to break away to attend church each week? Inspiration was the only explanation. Bold colors dominated many of his larger pieces. Angels were brushed into revolutionary scenes and white doves of peace into others. Ordinary moments of Egyptian life were captured in time as symbolism wove its painted voice of hope and optimism throughout and life carried on, not as usual, but as a new sort of “normal”. It is a time when artists of all genres are delving within to express fluid events happening all around them on a grand and historic scale. Yet not just artists are involved in the work of transformation. All facets of society’s landscape are irreversibly engaged in the working out of freedom.
After brushing shoulders with the VIPs of the evening, listening to European ambassadors wax eloquently on themes of freedom in the Middle East while musing on the art before them, hunger got the best of us and we escaped out a side door to one of Paul-Gordon’s favorite greasy shawarma sandwich joints across the street. Although vegetarian cuisine was lacking, the gregarious demeanor of the hardworking owner won me over and I joined him atop faded red vinyl stools with a perfect view of the entrance to the art gallery. We watched pedestrians stream by, rushing to and fro, some dodging traffic and others hailing rides in beat-up black and white taxis. The honking backdrop of hustle and bustle seemed perfectly in sync with the rhythm of our revolution themed conversation while we watched Cairo’s art enthusiasts come and go.
Earlier that afternoon on the way downtown, our pre-arranged driver Musa (Moses) sent along a "relative" instead to drive us at the last minute. The lingering smell of smoke mixed with body odor was so pungent that I rolled down my window, in blistering hot weather, to drink in the rarely preferred air of smog, car exhaust and noise pollution. I muttered my self-comforting mantra of “things could be worse” with a weak smile in the direction of my husband who was desperately dialing Musa’s number to tell him we would not need a ride home from his relative after all. Things did progress from bad to worse and before we knew it we were jammed into a line of traffic at a gas station to fill the taxi’s thirsty tank. Glancing at watches was futile, breathing through our mouths was workable and by the end of tactful negotiations no cigarettes were being smoked in our presence and the blaring decibels of the radio was a thing of the past.
Our return journey home later that night routed us through the downtown neighborhood of Maspero and past the Ministry of Information building along the Nile River where we had seen armored tanks entrenched during the revolution. No sign of tanks in sight now. I happened to glance up at a second story window and saw a sniper pointing his gun at us (well not exactly at us). At first I thought it was a mannequin because he was so still, but who would dress a mannequin in army fatigues brandishing a giant automatic weapon clamped onto to a professional looking swiveling window ledge stand? Then I saw a small gathering of dozens of protesters being restrained from pouring into traffic by army soldiers with yet more big guns. Although Paul-Gordon assured me the mannequin sniper was not really a sniper but rather a guard, I was not convinced.
The significance of the Egypt’s revolution is an ongoing process; images explored in paintings, but lived out in lives. What will the future look like? Are the core issues that caused the revolution really being addressed? Fear of the unknown still looms as the economy flails without tourists and new forms of leadership are explored as the corruption of the old is laid bare. The protestors were right, injustice was there, strong and stifling the lives of so many. The motivated voices from all facets of society, young and old, rich and poor, Muslim and Christian are emerging with spirits full of light and hope, yet still running up against walls of despair as minority prejudices wreak havoc. Will life give their dreams a chance? Will the few sabotage the many? Questions loom, unspoken at times, but palpable. Our family has been given a home here in Egypt, the gift of a secure haven, and a refuge in the midst of this city’s chaos in which we are raising our own children and living out the dreams we’ve been given. As Egypt’s revolution plays out its freedom may the gift of home weave its way into the lives of those who have welcomed us so generously. An evening out on the town is an occasion to savor, but a quiet night at home sounds very good to me.
“What is one of the words you use most in Arabic?” asked our youth director in full swing of his weekly children’s talk at our international expatriate church service here in Cairo. The theme of thankfulness had been introduced in the First Reading of the service and already echoed in the talk underway. One little hand immediately shot up in the air waving to be called on.
“Habibi!” he shouted.
Expecting a straightforward shokran, thank you, or some other common Arabic word, the congregation could not hold back their empathetic laughter. A term of endearment, habibi, “beloved” - used for close friends, lovers, or in smoothing impromptu business bartering. I’m sure the latter was where this young western boy had heard it repeatedly. But his generous expression said he had taken the best of its meaning to heart. What a glimpse of wisdom and interconnectedness children can give us.
Then followed rehearsing for the early Christmas pageant. Our older youth were drafted to narrate the story while the younger children dressed as authentically as possible for reenactment. No need for bath-robed shepherds, traditional Middle Eastern attire is readily available in all shapes and sizes. An introduction of cute “dove” costumes, with olive branch halos, to the animal cast options quickly swung the balance and revolting sheep no longer wanted to be sheep. Minor chaos ensued, was quickly smoothed over by the arrival of imported “candy cane” treats, and the pageant rehearsal resumed its course.
What an incredible amount of excitement in the air once the pageant turned “live.” My assigned responsibilities bore the label “crowd control,” which simply put meant cueing entrances and the hushing of cooing animals, leaping angels, a star wielding her banner like a weapon, wiggling shepherds and bobbing glitter crowned kings. I was useless. After more than a few gently whispered threats for silence outside the church door while the congregation strained to hear the narrators above the buzz, I realized I had the option to shout down the anticipation or just let it be. Luckily I stopped to enjoy the moment. Soon I was pondering the meaning of “beloved,” habibi, again. Looking around at the children as they excitedly processed in I realized all earthly bases were covered, a glimpse of Heaven again descended low – children from Egypt, Europe, South America, Australia, Asia, North America and Africa – all found their places and were singing their hearts out together, gathered around Jesus born anew this Christmas season.
What anchors you in life? What anchors you to God? What do you love doing? What feeds your heart, your very soul? Sometimes longed-for answers in life hover undiscovered just beneath the surface, waiting to be questioned.
The contrast between what feeds you and what drains you emotionally and spiritually is often evident enough when confronted. Life can drain our reserves and put us into a reactionary mode, forcing us to live defensively rather than purposefully and carry us along rapidly toward chaos. Or perhaps routine and purpose has become boring and void of meaning, knocking us off balance and creating a sense of hopelessness. Rather than resign ourselves to lives full of increased stress and unmanageable circumstances, we have the choice and opportunity to intervene, reflect on where we are going, and make a plan that fits who we are. We cannot control much of what happens to us but we can take preventative measures in setting goals and following dreams that will leave us centered and content, full of joy and positive attitudes. Life may detour your planned journey through open doors you had never noticed before as you pay attention and live intentionally. And when life is full of meaning and purpose there is plenty of energy leftover to give out toward others.
Setting such goals and boundaries in place long before crises have erupted will naturally enable positive life sustaining choices, come what may. And these choices often germinate in times of quiet, appointments with God, in whatever ways enhance that connection or feeling of centeredness and contentment. From that place of anchoring, circumstances and opportunities can play out on the grand scale of life generating joy and fulfillment. Just as negative experiences can stack up and weigh one down heavily over time, so can positive experiences build up and give reserves of strength to be savored and called on in times of need.
One of the greatest resources in my life is found in large abundance throughout the natural world, except in Cairo where I live: nature. During our summer breaks away from Cairo I treat myself to abundant fields of wildflowers, clear blue skies, and sounds of quiet. It actually takes me longer to stop spinning and unwind at the beginning of a respite away than it does to refill my empty cup with life sustaining water freely given and surrounding me in nature. In Cairo I feed off little glimpses of nature, plants on my porch and dusty sparrows on my windowsill, reminding me of the wealth of reserves I’ve stored up and encouraging me to stay outwardly focused on ways I can share my full cup of life.
Hardship and poverty all around me here in Cairo build up layers on my sensitive heart over time and threaten to choke out hope. Yet in the same way, layers of kindness and generosity I see here daily build up layers of goodness and offer grace. It is a continual balancing act for me, keeping the emotional and spiritual cup of life from draining out completely. When the bottom is falling out for whatever reason and emptiness draws near it is far beyond time to stop and think and listen. But even when my carefully thought through preventative measures fail me completely it’s never too late. The present moment always offers the opportunity to start over, clear the slate, and begin anew. To drink deeply from what feeds me, and to keep my boundaries in place, takes time and intentional planning.
God is the stabilizing force that carries us through all of life. At our core rests an anchor sustaining us in all the moments of our lives. God’s spirit resides within, as a beckoning call, a magnet of steadiness and love. Its source and strength are unending.
Regardless of where life takes us we are sitting alongside an eternal stream, which is offering refreshing water to us and to others. Drink from this stream. Quench your thirst. Water the dryness that grates at your soul. Allow your cup to be filled to overflowing. Then hand that cup to another. Better yet, point them to the source of the stream. There is plenty to share, plenty for all. What at first glance may appear to be a small desert spring may soon reveal its connection to a full and rushing river. Starting its journey in cool high mountain passes and traveling down into the Great Sea, the river’s supply is fresh, its provision constant.
Not limited to only one access point for drinking, its banks contribute freely along the length of its course. As with the mighty Nile River that weaves its way through the center of our city here, it runs through the heart of more than just Cairo, more than just Egypt as it carves its way through parched land. Just as God’s spirit pours generously into the lives of those in search of sustaining water, so the river of Life flows without restraint and gives freely of itself.
What anchors you in life? What anchors you to God? What do you love doing? What feeds your heart, your very soul? Sometimes longed-for answers in life hover undiscovered just beneath the surface, waiting to be questioned.
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall
My gray hair dilemma has gone from bad to worse. For several days running, I have not been able to look at my hairline part without conjuring up images of skunks lurking behind prickly bushes. My whole head of hair is far from white, but my hairline part is dashing that way in a very big hurry. The only thing I could think to do the first morning my hair glared at me in a hideous sort of way was to rearrange my hairstyle. Why not try parting my hair on the other side? Who will notice? And if they do it will look intentional, trying out a new hairdo. So I did just that and no one said a word, until lunchtime.
It was our day off and our weekly family time set aside to eat lunch out at our favorite restaurant. Part way through our meal Paul-Gordon introduced the topic of hairstyles and asked in a cautiously inquisitive, yet hardly subtle manner, “What’s going on with your hair?” “What do you mean, what’s going on with my hair? I didn’t think you would notice,” I laughed. “Of course I noticed the first second I saw it!” He answered, his grin matching my own. I smiled at Treston, who was taking no vested interest in what my hair looked like. I decided to go with the explanation that I was trying something new. Tuning into the fact that no further comments would be needed at that point, he dropped the subject, until nighttime. By then I had gotten fed up with my new hairstyle that kept migrating itself back to its one and only trained direction. When Paul-Gordon noticed my hair was “back to normal” he saw his window of opportunity and eagerly offered encouraging words saying it was much nicer that way, “not so flat looking.” He meant it kindly. I agreed. We moved on….
Until the next morning when the mirror abruptly greeted me with: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the grayest of them all?” Okay, fine. If I was a grandmother, then perhaps all would be well. Hopefully I would want to look my age. But those joyous years are still very far off in the distant future. I analyzed my options and all that kept presenting itself was a different version of my first attempt, conceal the white hairline part, at all costs. It would have to do. Next time I go in for a haircut I will run it by my hairdresser. She understands the agony of beauty versus vanity and my desire to at least somewhat resemble my God-given self. I’ll leave it in her capable hands.
Post-it Notes Around My Brain
Today I went in search of Amr, the banana man. He wasn’t there. His cart was there. His stalks of yellow fruit were there. His rusted weighing scale had weights on one side and bananas on the other, but he was nowhere to be found. Just last week he had promised me that he would be present whenever I was in need of bananas. I am in need of bananas; he has disappeared.
We are on day three of a hamaseen (sandstorm) in Cairo. My eyes feel scratchy and my throat is parched dry. I have a headache that won’t dislodge. It may have been a wiser choice to stay at home and shelter and forgo my need for bananas, but the wind is calmer and the skies are letting through a bit more light from beyond. To venture out for a short while seemed reasonable. My balcony is too sandy to step out onto and cleaning it at this point is futile. My windows look neglected, but until the storm passes completely it makes more sense to ignore them. Treston commented that our dog Pepsi needed to be dusted. We do that for her every once in a while when she doesn’t need a full bath, just a dusting. What pets have to endure at the thoughtful hands of their loved ones!
Yesterday I stepped into someone else’s emotional sandstorm and set off a landmine without realizing it was hovering unseen. I was trying to help a friend and it backfired, completely. I ran for shelter. And today I feel as if I am in recovery mode. It’s my weekly writing day and I can’t bring myself to write anything of import or earth shattering significance. My brain just isn’t in gear. I feel tired and drained. Now that I know what lurks emotionally beneath the surface of my friend I will work to be more sensitive. We are living in tension-filled times here in the flux of Egypt’s unknown future, let alone personal futures unknown. Yet it is heartwarming and inspiring to be present during this time to watch the strong spirits of the people of Egypt emerge and see them willing their dreams into motion.
Another friend in a state of a job crisis called to talk today. What can I say besides the obvious? And when she arrives at the next bend in the road she will see it. Beyond, life is waiting to carry her forward. I am currently in a state of “unknown future crisis” mode myself so other than commiserating in the angst I didn’t have much of a success story on hand to offer her today. But maybe that wasn’t what she was looking for anyway. For now it feels like I am spinning in circles one minute and slogging through threatening swamps oozing despair in another. I am afraid of an unknown I cannot control. I don’t fear the ones I have chosen. Maybe I need to convince myself that I have chosen an unknown future. For now that might be enough.
Decisions about this ominous crisis are still a full year away. What is the point of dreading it now? What is the point of missing the celebration of today? All is well. Today, all is well. When tomorrow becomes my today, I have to trust that all will be well. One thing I have noticed along the way is that dread is not helpful. What an energy consumer it can be. And more times than not whatever I have imagined will take shape into the worse possible scenario my imagination can conjure up, it is hardly so when its moment finally arrives. When I max out my whole quota of dread supply in advance do I wish there was more dread to draw on? It only sounds absurd when I look at it straight on and diffuse its strength. When I arrive on the scene of whatever I have expended so much energy on wishing would, or would not happen, things rarely are as dramatically horrible as I imagine they will be.
I think I need to put some post-it notes around my brain for moments such as these - when I decide to turn from drawing on dread to something more positive and life-giving. I know from experience that God will continue to light the way forward, one step at a time, and if not soon enough for my game plan it may one day be called perfect timing all the same. I believe I am exactly where I am meant to be for today and God has given me everything I need in the present moment, and has what I will need for tomorrow waiting and ready. My skills in creating positive post-it notes for my brain do need cultivating. Whenever a negative thought turns on in my brain, why shouldn’t it be questioned, challenged, looked at for what it is? What is it trying to tell me? Is it worthy of attention or is it something I can creatively reframe? When negative thinking is triumphed by positive thinking, its power is diffused and transformed and rehabilitated to help me move forward in joy. It’s a win-win situation; a win for post-it notes and a win for life. Maybe it’s something as simple as refuting doom and gloom with reality. Try ‘God is good always’ or ‘God will always be present, every step of the journey.’ These are promises we can hand out lavishly to ourselves, our family, friends and neighbors. These are not lofty promises for God. Put that divine faithfulness to the test. Every day, every hour, every moment; God will stand true.
Several hours after my first trip to the banana cart today I foraged my way back out into the elements. This time I found Amr present, leaning against his banana cart. He looked tired and a bit sand blown. A small group of street sweepers were resting on the curb next to his cart. Outdoor work on day three of a sandstorm is perseverance itself. I felt a bit self-conscious handing over enough money to fill up a bag while they watched on, probably a week worth of wages for them. I was tempted to rush the sale and run back to my apartment for cover. He wasn’t having any of it. There was plenty of time during this blustery day to share another banana. When my bag was full I offered one to the street sweeper nearest me and Amr joined in and treated the rest himself. Post-it notes to the rescue. God’s presence: faithful, sustaining.
I breathe in. I breathe out. I look deeply. I find gratitude. I look up. All is well. I am who I am. The sun shines in. The plants on my balcony feed me with color as they reflect the nourishment of morning light and move gently in the quiet breath of a passing breeze. Their roots are strong. They soak in the water and sunshine they are given. Even Cairo smog filtered air doesn’t stunt their growth; they are thriving and giving off oxygen as designed. I notice my herb pot of basil in the corner. It was the only plant that survived our sudden evacuation from Egypt during the revolution last winter. We left thinking we may be gone for up to a year, completely unsure what direction the uprisings would take. To our great amazement we were back home in Cairo much sooner than expected. During our absence my plants remained on our balcony, abandoned to fate, deprived of their generous daily dose of water from my bucket. I wondered about them occasionally during our evacuation, realizing their demise was inevitable. Thankfully we were able to save our family dog before leaving Egypt and secured her in a kennel near the pyramids with a kindly owner and a million other barking dogs. No airplanes would accommodate pets.
My first glance at the balcony upon our return revealed the expected, pots full of crisp brown deadweight leaves; even the few I cut down to the roots never grew back. Yet sheltered in the corner lived a mini-miracle. There stood my clay pot full of basil, green and full and thriving. I had never thought of basil as a particularly hardy herb. Was I seeing clearly? It was dusty and thirsty, but it stopped me in my tracks. All doom and gloom was thrown aside, a reminder of life and grace and hope had survived.
Recently I’ve been starting to doubt my decision to not conceal my burgeoning gray hair. Maybe I’m just having a low-confidence moment. Some days find me full, brimming and oozing with confidence and others find me dragging at the bottom of an abandoned desert well. But why should such a superficial issue as hair color consume me even momentarily? What causes these lapses into dismal self-doubt? When I ask my husband for honest answers to the condition of my outward facade he replies fully confident that I am the most beautiful woman he has ever laid eyes on. Although he may sound a bit overly confident he seems sincere enough, so I smile and thank him for being so generous. At my request, my daughter has been on high alert to tell me when it’s time to acquiesce to the plea of my hairdresser and subtly soften the signs of aging. I have always loved the look of gray hair and all that it stands for. I have no desire to look ten years younger than I am, but at the same time I certainly don’t care to look ten years my senior.
Before returning to Cairo after our summer break away, during which we shared some wonderful moments with family, I quizzed my daughter for honest answers. What was the current status of her gray hair monitoring project? “Mom, it’s time,” was her gentle response. She broke into a big smile and explained that such a growing abundance of gray hair would suit me well in ten or fifteen years time. My husband heroically disagreed. “It gives you character,” he said. I remained undecided and my son refused to cast the deciding vote. Conversations of a young boy at church referring to me as silver-haired, in a factual not unkind way, and a friend’s expressed regret in completely covering her gray hair suddenly rushed back to me in my moment of indecision. I couldn’t possibly bring myself to hide my graying locks completely.
I decided to leave matters of such importance in the hands of my Muslim German hairdresser here in Cairo. It was the beginning of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of reflection and fasting, when I arrived for my appointment at her newly renovated “women only” salon. She listened attentively to my anguished wavering request for guidance, and heard my heart too. She laughed understandingly and said she knew exactly what I needed. Despite the opinion of her hired hair colorist, who argued in Arabic that things had gone too far to do anything but fully mask the offending color, my cause won out and a sort of low-lighting natural color concession ensued. I still have plenty of wisps of white hair in place, to honor my only slightly compromised character, but I look my age once again. Such a perhaps shallow and mundane pursuit during this month of Ramadan, a time set aside for spiritual reflection all around me, has given me cause to pause and reflect.
I am reminded I must live my life before only one. And that One made me just as I am and sees me with the eyes of the heart. I am on pilgrimage, in motion, following life’s journey as it carries me along. I’m strong. I’m fragile. I haven’t arrived. But when I allow life to lead me from forces without, not within, I so quickly lose a sense of freedom and joy. When my life’s purpose blurs and the contentment I so often savor turns its back, sunshine remains elusive and dark shadows set in. Inevitably then it is back to the basics, which is not really a bad place to be. How can I truly be me? How can I give out to others? What do the priorities of my heart really look like? What would life look like if I could honestly live it before only one? To walk courageously through doors that open and to bow patiently to doors that close might become natural. To look with wonder and thankfulness today may anchor me to live from within. To live sacrificially and intentionally with a spirit of celebration may keep me in motion. To indulge in what feeds and refreshes my soul may sustain me, not just in times of reflection, but in moments when the full cup of Life is to be shared with others.
A Revolutionary Ash Wednesday
Time stood still for 18 days. From the start to the finish of Egypt’s revolution and the ouster of its oppressive regime I lived life in slow motion. In a daze of surreal wonder, fear, hope, uncertainty and anticipation of freedom just around the corner I moved from adrenaline highs to exhaustion lows. One moment I was certain Mubarak would step down; the next I would lose hope completely. Before the revolution marched into our lives, my church piano music was full of the light and airy melodies of Epiphany. During the revolution the only music I could engage with was the rhythmic chanting of peaceful protesters, the angry buzz of looting mobs and the ringing of my neighbor’s shot gun right outside my living room window. By the time it was over and I got my feet back on the ground and my fingers back on the piano keys, Lent was upon us.
How appropriate the season of Lent felt right then, for on the wave of elated celebration of new found freedom in Egypt, just below the surface I sensed echoes of uncertainty in an unknown future. At this time when hearts were overflowing with hope, we were being offered a season in which to pause and reflect, to look back, and to look forward. Lent, offering an invitation to participate individually and as a community in pondering our shortcomings, analyzing our priorities and turning our faces toward the source of hope for the journey before us. Delving through music into the essence of minor keys so well suited for Lent and allowing emotions to play through its melodies reconnects me deeply to inner realities. I love that nothing in music needs to be completely understood. Its voice and its listeners are subjective, leaning on imagination and drawing from past emotions to interpret meaning in the present moment.
Ash Wednesday morning found me a bit less optimistic than usual. Bumps in the road toward freedom in Egypt seemed to have taken a momentary turn for the worse in the precarious process of searching for freedom and stability as groups of Muslims and Christians had been incited in violence toward one another. I was very thankful for the timing of a quiet Ash Wednesday service that evening. Our church book group would be meeting the following morning and less than half our members had returned to Cairo after evacuating. Thankfully new friends would join.
Memories of our first Ash Wednesday in Cairo flash back to me every year. It was only hours before our service was to take place when we realized we had no ashes. For weeks we had been announcing the opportunity to participate in this ancient symbolic service in which we would all come forward to kneel and receive the imposition of ashes, “remembering that we are but dust and to dust we shall return.” Ashes: we had no ashes.
A panicked call to our youth director brought him rushing over with plans to help burn leaves and twigs in a coffee can on our mini balcony. Despite our efforts we could not get anything in the form of somber black ashes to appear. He offered to run down to the local sheesha (Arab water pipe) bar and borrow some ashes. Beside the fact that the idea was perhaps sacrilegious, the ashes we’d seen smoldering in sheesha pipes were usually white and powdery. And who would want sheesha pipe ashes rubbed in the sign of the cross on their forehead? The whole tradition rested on the assumption that last year’s Palm Sunday palm branches had been burned for the reverent event. In the end, we settled for the remains of our balcony leaves.
Ashes. The concept of ashes seemed very pertinent in “post-revolutionary” Egypt and the Middle East as a whole. What began with a spark from smoldering desperation had been fanned into a massive peaceful swell of sought after freedom. What would rise from the ashes of injustice? Would peace manage to prevail? Our Ash Wednesday service that evening found our little church full. Usually at the end of such a service we would recess in silence into the night, but moments of fellowship these days were our lifelines.
As we stepped outside our church doors one of the US military guys worshiping with us said he had just received a text message from the embassy announcing that the Egyptian Army had officially moved our curfew up from midnight to 9pm, the first time that had happened since we returned from our forced evacuation weeks earlier. Apparently counter-revolutionary thugs had reappeared on Tahrir Square downtown Cairo (rumored again to be secret police in plain clothes) dispersing protesters with knives and machetes. All tents were ripped out of the center of the square; we still knew admirable people camping out there to ensure continued reform. The emotional roller coaster was far from over.
After wishing peace upon each other we rushed home from church just in time for Paul-Gordon to do another radio interview about Christian-Muslim relations and I had time to walk our dog before the mandated curfew set in. I wondered about our planned dinner out after church with friends the following evening and if new curfew hours would force us to cancel. How self-centered my thought process was. Regardless, Lent was upon us. It had been ushered in with prayerful moments of silence, reflective music, and symbolic ashes. Surrounded by an atmosphere that was asking huge questions about what it meant to be free, truly free, it was time to thoughtfully embrace the new season.
Two Friends Miles Apart
I have two Egyptian friends who live ten miles apart. They both live in apartment buildings not very far from the Nile. They both love God and have dreams for their children, experience suffering and joy. One is the driver for our bishop here. The other has a staff of chauffeurs.
I love their spirits; both are sincere, joyful and outwardly focused. And yet when they return home each night, a million miles divide them. One is welcomed home by the skills of a butler. The other by a tired wife. One sits down to a meal cooked by servants. The other lives with no kitchen, instead a makeshift range. Her husband says these twenty years she never has complained. Please, please don’t ask my husband. I couldn’t vouch the same.
The eldest child of one is in England, at a promising university. The eldest child of the other is dependent, mentally handicapped since birth. Thankfully their younger two have had an education. Caring supporters saw them through college; perhaps the grip of poverty will loosen.
It is humbling to think of the paths chosen for us even as life begins. My heart has learned so much from my friends. These are images I carry of beauty and goodness. I ponder the barren vulnerability of circumstances, yet the inner ability to give. The “widow’s mite” story is alive and well. So is transformation within. My friend born to wealth is exceedingly generous. They care for so many in their world. She says we are not just children of Abraham but also of God, our Creator.
Miles apart yet linked as humanity. God bridges our hearts. Through friendship, through prayers, through actively loving what appears in our lives today. Our audience is but one.