In the Flow of Life

There was a time when I did not give money to peddlers and beggars and people on the street. It’s not that I was not generous. I was and I am. It’s just that I didn’t trust that the money I gave them individually would help improve their lives. A walk with my Dad and an experience years later brought me to understand the act of giving and receiving are a continuous process in the flow of one’s life.

Many years ago, I accompanied Dad on a walk around the block. I always enjoyed the time alone with him as we would delve into some form of philosophy that shaped our lives. We walked in and out of alleys just chitchatting, until we came across a tired looking woman with a baby in her arms asking for charity. Without hesitation, Dad reached into his pocket, took out paper currency and kindly handed it to her. “Why?” I asked. “How do you know that woman isn’t going to spend the money on things other than food? She could be using the child as bait for sympathy,” I continued. “Instead of begging at the corner and making an easy career out of this, she should be working and doing something with her life.”

“My dear girl,” said Dad, “Do you know what has brought her to the streets? She may not have had the choices or the capabilities to stay afloat in the social structure. Perhaps she got stuck in the flow of life. Perhaps the opportunities for her were very limited. Perhaps she was outcast. Perhaps misunderstood. Perhaps neglected. Perhaps she doesn’t know any better. Perhaps she was born in poverty.” And with a nostalgic shake of his head, he said, “And, do you know the state of mind associated with loss of dignity and humiliation that comes with poverty and desperation? You do not, dear girl, because you haven’t worn her shoes. I see degradation and humiliation in her eyes, and when I give her money, I see in her eyes a grateful heart. That’s all the reasoning I need.” Then he added with his usual huge smile, “And if, for whatever reason, she has made this a career of her own choosing, like all careers, they need a boost.”

Dad’s desire to help unconditionally was genuinely rooted in recognition of his human solidarity with those who were suffering, regardless of their circumstances.

Flash forward years from that day. I had been up for two nights straight tending to my seriously ill infant daughter who was in need of medication. I looked a mess in baggy sweatpants, a faded frayed T-shirt with drool stains on my shoulders, disheveled hair and eyes that screamed ‘exhausted’. I looked like crap. I felt like crap. All I could think of in that state of mind was to ease my child’s discomfort. I drove to a nearby drugstore with my baby (since I had no one with whom to leave her), and after what seemed like an eternity at the pharmacy, I picked up the meds and made a weak dash to the car and realized that I had locked the keys in the car. I found a pay phone, looked up the number to a car locksmith in the directory of a phone book only to discover that I did not have any change to place the call. (For those of you wondering, at the time, mobile phones were not yet common and credit/debit cards were not an option with which to pay.) With a sick infant hanging on my weary shoulder, I was desperate. With great self-conscious embarrassment, I grudgingly approached people in the parking lot for a dime or quarter. Many odd looks, quite a few rejections, then, one kind man gave me the dime. He must have seen gratitude in my eyes because he then took out a dollar and squeezed it in my hand saying, “Here, buy some milk for the child.” Painful humiliation, loss of dignity, and degradation. My eyes welled with tears. At that moment, in the eyes of a stranger, I was no different from that poor, tired woman with child of years ago asking for charity on a street corner.

Today, I give. I give to persons in need in recognition of my human solidarity with those who are suffering, regardless of their circumstances. Because for whatever reason they are on the street, for whatever wretched circumstances brought them there in the flow of life, they will never lose the ability to be gracious for the “monetary” gifts they receive… a lesson I will keep in my heart.

HAPPY THANKSGIVING, from my grateful heart to yours.

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“Pity the Nation”

“…Pity the nation that acclaims the bully as hero, and that deems the glittering conqueror bountiful. … (Khalil Gibran)

I cannot let go of the weight on my heart as I, and many others, experience the depth of our sorrow when politics turns dark. In a phone call 10 days ago (at the time of this writing), President Trump gave the green light to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to invade northern Syria, and in the process, to engage in what Armenians have experienced and known for over 100 years, an ethnic cleansing.

Nothing new here. It is history that repeats itself with tyrants. And unfortunately, the grim and sobering reality of our current global crises of leaders among nations is frightening. Todays’ foxlike statesmen have “great” relationships with one another, weaving webs that bond them together over “nice” conversations. “Nice” conversations among them are merely an exchange of needs that serve narcissistic egos. And they will forsake anyone or a people who no longer serves their need. President Trump, whose appeal is founded on a backdrop of personal achievement, constant boasting of being unrivaled and a bully like toughness, will, like all the other tyrants with whom he has a “good” relationship and “nice” conversations, abandon anyone who no longer serves his needs. (Check the number of White House Staff, Cabinet Members, administrators on whom he has turned his back after letting go or resigning.) He has no empathy, no sympathy, no guilt nor shame. I pity the nation.

A year ago, President Trump was praising the Kurds as “great” allies, vowing to protect them. “They fought with us. They died with us,” Trump said. “We have not forgotten.” Predominantly Kurdish forces in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) played a central role in aiding the United States in fighting the Islamic State. The US armed them, used them, praised them, and just last week, the President dismissed the Kurds with the justification, “They didn’t help us in the Second World War; they didn’t help us with Normandy.” And the President of this nation did not call for the Turkish tyrant to observe the rule of law, or Western standards of justice. Instead, Trump distanced himself saying, “Turkey and the Kurds are fighting ‘over land that has nothing to do with us.’” The results have been swift and brutal with the displacement of more than 275,000 people (of whom 70,000 are children, according to SDF), executions of journalists, female politician, war crimes, and the escape of hundreds of Islamic State (ISIS) prisoners. If Islamic State fighters manage to get free, “they’re going to be escaping to Europe,” Trump said last week. As if Europe’s problems won’t affect the United States! I pity the nation.

This becomes a complicated geopolitical battleground where many international and regional players, with varying interests and means, clash violently. Sadly, ordinary civilians will pay the ultimate price. We see this same scenario being played out over and over again. Go back 104 years to the Genocide of Armenians by Turkey; back 75 years to the Holocaust; back 45 years to the Cambodian genocide; 25 years to Rwandan genocide; 15 years and counting to the Darfur genocide; 8 years and counting to the Saudi led Yemeni genocide; 3 years and ongoing to the Rohingya (Myanmar) genocide, and beyond. For tyrants, other human beings don’t have intrinsic dignity or value. Human worth is determined in terms of what benefits them in their personal “great” relationships and ego boosting ‘mine is bigger than yours’ attitude. By now, this behavior should come as no surprise to anyone. When tyrants lead nations, it becomes the history of the world to interfere solely to suit their political game and agenda.

Where do we go from here? For the Kurds, Arabs, Armenians and Assyrians living near and around the northern zone of Syria, the consequences of America’s policy change will only get worse. Meanwhile we have played Syria into the hands of Russia. Our “ally”, Saudi Arabia, is ready and waiting for the green light backing of the US to pounce on Iran who holds the Hezbollah proxy. The proxies of Russia, the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are now spinning an even bigger web, in which millions of refugees continue to face an unknown future. One thing is certain: the biggest beneficiary of this will be ISIS, and with a possibility of resurgence we will all be under threat. Any ensuing conflict will be fought on the battlefield of civilian bodies.

I pity the nations.

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MYOB and Junk Food

“I mind my own business and I don’t eat junk food,” had said Besse Cooper when asked by the Guinness Book of World Records for the key to living a long life. At the time, Besse Cooper was the oldest person alive at the age of 116 in the year 2011. (She passed away shortly after that). There is much wisdom in Cooper’s advice, and I don’t doubt that her mantra of minding her own business saved her from unwanted stress and unnecessary drama of gossip. And by not eating greasy junk food, she kept a lean and healthy body for all those years. Woe is me, for I’m afraid I’ve broken her mantra on many occasions.

Sitting in a pub away from home and enjoying the best double fried chips and a pint of beer with my dear companion, I am relishing the finger licking and lip smacking goodness of one of the high caloric, cholesterol encouraging pairing of “junk” food. I’m minding my own business, yet I can’t help overhearing the conversation of a well-dressed man talking to a young girl about a job offer. His language is smooth, clean and educated. He is convincing her, with tactful coercion to engage in sexual activity for payment, not for himself, but for others whom he would recommend. Basically, he is a procurer; a pimp. She is an attractive, younger woman/girl who is not quite convinced and is making a few excuses about how she isn’t sure she should leave her existing job of housekeeping in a hotel. The slick man is working to recruit her, telling her it wouldn’t interfere with her current job. She could see to pleasing a customer or two, or, at most, three a day, and still keep her job if she wanted to. He continues to procure her interest by adding that she needn’t do any soliciting. He would send her the customers some of whom might conveniently be old men and would be less “work.” “It’s easy good money,” he says. “I send you the customer, you do the job, we split 50/50 on the fee.”

The conversation goes on for almost 45 minutes. I’m on my second order of fries and drink. He’s still insisting that she gives it a try, take a chance, her fears are unfounded, and that he’ll take care of her. She’s still hesitant… or is she playing him along? Is she being taken advantage of, or is she taking advantage of the situation?

Meanwhile, my outrage at the situation is steeping inside like a dam holding back the waters. If I dare open one small hole, one tiny fissure, the pressure of that outrage would destroy and flood everything and perhaps jeopardize the girl’s safety. I’m about to burst. My companion holds me back. He says she sounds quite capable of handling the situation. “Maybe she’s undercover,” he says hopefully. He tells me to consider who is at risk. “You live life passionately, and sometimes, that can be dangerous,” he says. Fine! I could just pretend I didn’t hear the conversation and simply block it out. It’s none of my business. But that would negate everything for which I stand. All these years, I have been advocating against cultures that supports violence and coercion, human trafficking and the use and abuse of women and children. I can’t put a filter over my ears and eyes and ignore the situation by saying it’s none of my business, regardless in what part of the world I am. Minding my own business doesn’t mean evading responsibility or ignoring the world around me. It means knowing what I stand for, distancing myself from the unimportant and unnecessary drama of gossip, and doing what needs to be done by holding myself accountable to my ideals.

I search the internet for a help beyond the streets hotline. The man steps away from the table to get the girl another drink from the bar. My heart is pounding. There’s no time for conversation. I write the number of the help line on a cocktail napkin, turn around and place it by her hand, next to her phone. I see her expression of surprise, and then a faint smile of apprehension. I can’t honestly say that I feel victorious, but I must trust she’ll do what needs to be done in a way that serves her best.

I return to minding my own business and eating more chips. Unlike Besse Cooper, I have once again shortened my life years.

 

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Tug at my Heartstrings

This past month has been one where things on my mind truly hit my heart with a new depth of understanding.  I feel the pull on my heartstrings, a tug-of-war between letting go and holding on, which is familiar to all parents from the day their child is born. But this month, I finally understood what my parents and thousands of other parents have felt in their heart when their child or children make a choice to move abroad. My daughter and her family are moving to Europe.

When I consider that nearly twenty years of our lives as parents are devoted to raising, nurturing, and caring for our child/children, it’s easy to see why letting go of that role is a frightening task. Childrearing consumes our time, energy, concern and love for at least two decades. We invest our hearts, minds and spirits into our children’s physical, emotional, social and spiritual well being, and it can be very difficult when that part of our lives comes to an end. But does it really come to an end? With every separation, with every distance, our heartstrings are pulled again and again. We are constantly confronted with the reality of our children growing up. Whether it’s weaning them off breastfeeding, the first day in day care or kindergarten, sending them to camp, going away to college, or walking the bride down the aisle to give her away, or knowing that our son has found a soul mate, we experience the tug-of-war with our heartstrings. And with each step, we are faced with letting go of a parental attachment held from birth. We do so with a pull at our heartstrings and a prayer on our lips.

Years ago when the world was not as small and connected as it is today, my parents moved to the Arabian Gulf to make a life of new discovered opportunities. It was daunting for them and for the families they left behind. The families trusted their choices and sent them off with a constant prayer on their lips. When I was 16 years young I first chose to leave home to study abroad. When I was 20 years young I made the long trek to the US to continue an education, find employment, choose a spouse, marry, have two beautiful children, move to Europe and then take a huge leap of faith to relocate to the US, and from there, continue to add to my story. My parents trusted and honored my choices with constant prayers on their lips.

Now it is my turn. As a parent I must honor the choices my children make. I may not always like the choices, but it is their own life story they must write, just like I did mine with the trust and prayers of my parents. And yes, it is hard. It is a daunting task not knowing what lies ahead. But I do know I have taught my children enough and well. I do know I have given them the tools to make choices that contribute to the functioning of home and family. And I do know an immense pride for their accomplishments and wisdom that percolates deep beneath the surface of my heart. Hard as it is to face the unknown, I also know that my daughter, like me, loves the adventure that comes with the freedom to choose. It is at the core of our experiences in this life. Ever since she and her brother were children, I have allowed them choices that acknowledged mistakes, embraced pain, and required a deep level of acceptance and trust.  It also brought strength, passion, energy, a closeness and purpose to both our experiences.

I’ve loved.  I’ve taught. I’ve shown up to cheer. I’ve encouraged their independence. I’ve embraced them in their worst moments and in their best moments. I’ve set aside my own fears and let them know that mistakes are part of the journey and there is no shame in living and learning.  I’ve asked. I’ve listened. I’ve given support and guidance.  I’ve seen triumph in decisions made. I’ve gained from their wisdom. And today, I know their strength, I see their dreams, I feel their heart, and I trust in their path.

Today, I send my daughter and her family of four over oceans and across continents with a tug at my heartstrings and constant prayers on my lips.

 

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Mending, Not Fixing

A decorative button on my jacket was missing. It left a noticeable gap in its design as the buttons were unique to the jacket and could not be matched without altering all of them. I searched for my sewing box with the false hope that I might find four matching decorative buttons to replace the ones on my jacket. Amid the pillowcases and sheets in my linen closet I found my sewing box that has been with me for over 40 years. It is an old, round shortbread biscuit tin. Nothing elaborate. It has no compartments or layers, but it has all the essentials for mending. As I went through it, I found a plastic container full of buttons of all shapes, sizes and colors. A kaleidoscope of memories brought a smile to my lips. There were pearl buttons that once belonged to a silk embroidered shirt my grandmother owned. There were shirt buttons, coat buttons and various ladies’ suit buttons. Some of those were beautiful ones from hand tailored suits, which my mother (like many women of her time) had removed and kept to re-use and re-cycle. I couldn’t help but recall how as a child I used to watch intently while the women in my life would spend time mending and repairing things. They hemmed, they altered, they patched and darned, they sewed and repaired tears. And with every stitch it was as though they were repairing, renewing and restoring not just the fabric or item, but mending relationships, creating a deeper more sustainable bond between people, their communities and their material things.

The art of repairing and reusing some of our personal belongings like footwear, nylons, school bags, umbrellas, upholstery, and clothing is a world away from today’s pressures of new purchases and consumption. In truth, most people know very little now about mending. We live in a world of throwaway culture, having given in to fast fashion, disposable items, replaceable people and throwaway values. Mending and repairing has lost its appeal. We may talk about “mending the social fabric of our nation,” “patching the gaps,” “hemming the boundaries,” “tears in community,” “repairing the social safety nets,” “stitching together a strategy,” or “darning our relationships,” but instead of mending and repairing, we replace with new our policies, boundaries, strategies, relationships, people, and values assuming the new will fix what’s broke.

Fixing is NOT the same as mending. Fixing suggests that evidence of the problem will disappear, whereas mending is a preservation of history, and a proclamation of hope. When we mend, we find the common thread, and weave the value of our differences into the colorful pattern of the fabric we wear or share as in the social fabric of a nation. When we mend broken relationships we realize the value of a shared past and perhaps we are even stronger for the rip and the repair. When we patch the gaps in our humanity, we don’t ignore the scars of previous tears and assume that by making them disappear they will be fixed. We mend. Because mending is an affirmation of worth. Mending doesn’t say, “This never happened.” Instead, it says that something or someone was definitely broken here, but by paying attention to the frays and rips we tenderly raise it to new life. Just like my jacket, or a friendship torn by misunderstanding, even a country ripped apart by frayed politicians, or a nation stressed at the seams of economic and social inequity, and a global split of enormous proportions — they all need mending.

I believe in mending. Mending is a commitment. It re-centers us to embrace the beauty of what we have and to notice the places of friction that need the most repair. It reorients us to look carefully and examine the frayed edges. It helps us to resist the disposability of people and things. Mending is an act of devotion. It isn’t simply about saving a piece of clothing anymore. It is about choosing to repair instead of disposing of the evidence of “the problem,” whether it is a relationship gone sour or a nation torn apart. Just like the women of my childhood memory, mending gives me time to stop and to think, a time to value what exists and a chance to sew actual rips together. While I can’t solve world conflict, or reverse global warming, I can definitely work to repair things at hand, stitch-by-stitch.

I start with my jacket.

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From Zero to One, An Infinity

Numbers fascinate my grandson. He tries to grasp the concept of infinity. “Can we count to infinity? What is infinity plus one? Does the sum of infinite numbers produce a finite number?” The questions are endless, or should I say infinite.

Mathematics has never been my strong subject, and the concept of infinity is difficult to explain. But I too am fascinated by the concept of infinity, and at best, all I can offer is that there is a gap that exists between each number, and each gap contains it’s own infinity. Well that didn’t explain much to my inquisitive grandson. I finally found it easier to explain infinity that exists between Zero (a nothing) and One than trying to visualize the infinity in each gap. There is a gap between Zero and One, and the numbers that exist in that gap are an endless string of rational and irrational numbers. (There’s .1 and .12 and .112 and .113 and so on with an infinite collection of others.) In order to move from Zero (a nothing) to One, then, we have to pass through an infinite number of numbers.

So how do I explain it in simple terms? How do I explain the change that occurs when moving from complete absence to a single presence? How do I explain that we encounter “infinity” routinely in our daily lives? And that having Zero to having One can make an infinite difference in one’s world.

My father and I came up with a simple explanation years ago after we would share our thoughts on various episodes of “The Twilight Zone.” Some episodes left us thinking deeper into the philosophy of the known unknowns. Sometimes we tried to understand what it would be like to be the only survivor of a catastrophe that hit the earth. Assuming you, the survivor, had enough food, water, and breathable air, and could find some decent shelter, your greatest challenge would be loneliness. You’d wander around in search of other survivors, and gradually lose hope. But what if you did find another person? Just one. What difference would it make? Zero people, or one person? The difference would be enormous. In fact, the difference would be immeasurable. Infinite.

Or imagine that for some reason you are in solitary confinement. You’re in a cell, which consists of a cot, pillow, blanket, toilet, and sink. A single light bulb burns for a few hours a day. Your food is sent to you on a conveyor belt. There are no sounds. There is no mirror, no window to the outside. Nothing moves, except you. How long would you last before you became insane? Now add one item. A book. Would it matter whether it was a biography, or a fantasy novel? A chemistry or quantum physics textbook? A dictionary? Each of these would be infinitely better than no book at all. That single volume could keep your mind from disintegrating. You would read every word, every equation, slowly, repeatedly. The book would change your whole world. From Zero to One.

After our hypothetical discourse, my father and I would bring the discussion to home. He would point to the coat closet and say; “You have a coat closet in your house that’s filled with all kinds of jackets. Adding or removing one item will probably not make a difference. But what if you were outside in the middle of winter and you had no coat? One coat would make the infinite difference.” And we would continue to find examples in our daily lives that routinely made an “infinite” difference from Zero to One.

I continue the discussion with my grandson. You’re in the desert. You have no canteen of water or you have one canteen of water. A life changing difference. From Zero to One. There are people who own five homes. There are other people who have nowhere to live. To whom would the addition of one house make the greatest impact? The change from Zero to One is felt and appreciated infinitely greater.

But my grandson is at an age where larger numbers appeal to him. He says he wants to be the scientist who can change the world for more than just one. As for me, I’ll stick to changing one life at a time from having Zero to having One. And the difference for me would be just as great, because changing the world for someone would be infinitely greater than changing the world for no one. Zero to One, an infinity of numbers that fill the gap.

To the memory of my father who taught me to see the known beyond the unknown.

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Tuesday Nights With Nane

There are women in my life who are critically important to me in my circle of family, relatives, friends and co-workers. They range in age from teens to mid nineties. They are daughters, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, oldest friend, newest friend, married, unmarried, gratefully single, remarried, mothers, childless (for a variety of reasons and emotions), homemakers, and professionals. They are Middle Eastern, American, Armenian, European and African. Some are devoutly religious, while others are absolutely not interested in the divine, but most all have questioned divinity at some point in their lives. Some are spiritually challenged, while a few have “negotiated” personal agreements with God. Over many years of coffees and teas and drinks (including much hard liquor) I have sat with these lovely individuals and have had conversations and discussions about family, responsibility, work, autonomy, marriage, men, divorce, intimacy, fidelity, love, sexuality, cultural stigma, traditions, faith, life and death. I have laughed with all and I have cried with all.

I could write a memoir or a tribute for each of these fine women built on the bones of those conversations. But today, when I piece together the pages of my life story I find a common denominator with an extraordinary woman, my aunt Nane. The first memory I have of my aunt is perhaps when I was 4 or 5 years of age. At the time she and her husband had no children of their own and I was to spend a couple of days with them for reasons unknown. I marveled at her slender body, her beautiful green eyes and her radiant smile whenever she looked at me. But what struck me tender was how she would bend her knees to come to my level when she helped dress me or speak to me. Over the years I established a habit of spending summer days with her and her family. During those times, between her daily chores of tending to home, three children, and a husband, we bonded. She, like many of the women of her time, has had her share of wrestling with her role as a loyal daughter, woman, wife, mother. With every motion and emotion, with every difficulty or trouble, I saw in her a frailty that over time began to gain muscle. My mother would say of her sister, “the ferocity of her human spirit comes from her faith driven stubbornness.”

She is a pianist. Music, (a love she instilled in all three of her children) is her friend. The notes rebound off the walls, invisible waves of sound making imprints in time and in my memory. I listen. She is also an avid reader spending hours among books, magazines, newspapers and the Bible always sharing reflections and insight. Being a middle child among 5 siblings she was the assigned “mediator” and “messenger,” the “peacemaker,” for family and friends when argument stirred among neighbors and couples; a gift she continued to spread through her benevolent volunteer duties for the Blue Cross in Lebanon. Yet the demon of guilt always makes her question whether what she does now in her life adds to anything worthwhile. I remind her that benevolence is how she continually gives of herself to her friends and family, with her strength, her faith, her care, and her unspoken love.

During my college years, in between Biology and Math classes, Tuesdays were spent in her kitchen or in the dining room with conversations over lunch. It became a ritual. We trusted that our thoughts were not only safe in each other’s presence, but that they were also positive influences to our sometimes-troubled souls. It was as though we replenished the parts of ourselves that were missing in the different stages of the lives we were living. There were good days and there were ugly days. In the 70’s and 80’s war in Lebanon landed a brutal blow to many who lost sons and daughters, and Nane was there comforting friends who suffered the agony. The memories stay in her mind’s eye for decades. It was years later when she would stand at her youngest daughter’s grave, stoically suffocating the torment in her afflicted heart. She believes in good and evil. She believes in God. Torn in so many places, she finds her footing. Her faith doesn’t falter. Nane is a woman of few words about her own feelings and emotions. Her world is private. She puts up a harsh front for herself, yet she is lenient with others, validating their existence and their thoughts and actions.

The ritual continues. I spend my Tuesday nights with Nane. We pour a glass and set the table to start our night of nibbling on our thoughts. The conversation shifts to current wisdom and the advantage of age, but behind the mask of her advancing years is the woman I knew as a little girl. She does not make excuses for who she is and what she feels. She has thrown away the censors and the cultural stigmas of the past. She is open and loving.

Life is finite and fragile. Which is why I want only to tell this dear woman that her spirit and soul are the most beautiful I’ve ever felt; that she is beautiful, too, in every important way. I’ll hold on to the memory of what she’s shared for as long as I live.

(Dear Reader, share with me one of the beautiful souls in your life whose spirit will linger in your memory.)

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