My Kindred Spirit

(Dedicated to sisters, daughters, and mothers)

“Friend” is the one word commonly used to describe everyone from acquaintances to intimates. It is a word we have to qualify with adjectives to explain the extent of friendship: school friends, work friends, old friends, casual friends, good friends, best friends, bosom friends. But this catch-all word, “friend,” doesn’t catch everything, especially when describing a truly close friend. What really defines a friend?

Women have defined a close friend as: someone who knows you in your silence, who accepts you as you are, understands you to the core; someone on whose trust and loyalty you can count, someone to have on your side; someone to share worries and secrets and the good stuff of life; someone who won’t dismiss or deceive you; someone who laughs and cries with you; someone you know in your heart would fight for you and someone you’d fight for. The desire for such deep friendship begins early in life.

Anne Frank, the famous young diarist of the 20th century, was said to have yearned for a close friend with whom to share her feelings when she and her family went into hiding to escape the Nazis. Deprived of that intimacy, she turned to her diary, making up Kitty her imaginary friend and writing letters chronicling life in the secret annex. “With them, she could laugh, cry, forget her isolation,” wrote biographer Melissa Muller.

In Anne of Green Gables, a children’s classic by L.M. Montgomery which was my daughter’s favorite, (alongside Little Women and A Secret Garden) the young heroine Anne is newly transplanted to Avonlea and is pining for a “bosom friend.” Anne confides her hope of finding “a kindred spirit to whom I can confide my inmost soul. I’ve dreamed of meeting her all my life.”

With that same yearning and inspired by Anne of Green Gables, throughout her elementary and secondary school years, my daughter would ask, “Who’s your kindred spirit Mommy?” I would answer that I didn’t think I had one, but that I enjoyed the company and friendship of many. “Everyone must have a bosom friend Mommy,” she exclaimed. Then, feeling sad for me, she would put her arm around me and say, “I’ll be your best bosom friend, your kindred spirit, Mommy.”

Flattered, I hugged and kissed her. But deep down inside I didn’t think that could be a reality. I was her mother; the authority figure. I was supposed to be parenting, not disclosing my emotional circuitry. No free-for-alls, no bargaining chips, no false praise or cheap feedback from this mother. I insisted on seat belts, I made sure she wore her jacket, I worried about melanoma. I warned, I toughened the love, I corrected mistakes. The Flu, insecurity, precocious puberty. I read notes found in pockets (secretly), I skimmed journals, felt her heart break. Mine bled. She had grit with a soft heart. So did I. I asked the hard questions. I hugged. I expected hard answers.  I soothed, I monitored, I stepped in, I receded. I was mothering with no room for confiding my inmost soul.

In High School, again she asked, “Who’s your best friend Mama?’ Again, I replied that I didn’t have one best friend but many who defined me and I them. It was a mutual relationship; a symbiosis of sorts. Years passed. Colleges, universities, spouse, children, new friends and old rolled through her life. My daughter never again asked me if I had a best friend. She didn’t have to. She knew.  I’d met her all her life.

**My best friend wishes for me to be more than I can dream for myself, the one who pushes me to pass my own expectations. Some days she is my anchor in the storm, and other days just the storm, but her unconditional love and acceptance make me challenge myself and chase a few rainbows. She is one I admire. Unpretentious, she is the quiet hero who marches head-on into uncertain moments, adapting as circumstances demand. She has grit and a soft heart. She loves intuitively, openly, fearlessly. She is genuine. She listens. She knows and understands when and what bothers me and she knows what makes me smile or frown. She can decode every line on my brow, every quiver in my voice or glint in my eyes. My best friend knows I love her, and that’s enough for her. She knows I’ve got her back. Of course I have. I’m her mother, her kindred spirit.**

 

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I Pray

happy-new-year-2017-png-55-2I pray. Sometimes, I systematically utter the Lord’s Prayer under my breath, barely audible, in between thoughts. At times I recite the words at the beginning or end of a thought when I just can’t put into words the happenings or emotions that accompany my existence in what I truly believe is a wonderful life. I, like many of you, experience moments of joy, pain, alone or shared, with laughter and tears. I sum up those moments to life’s long river winding and bending farther than the eye can see with twists that catch me unaware. And on the twisting path, I flow like water gathering stones, rocks, pebbles and sometimes debris only to deposit them in the course of my journey, carrying with me the sediment of lessons learned and wisdom gained. Yet, in all this splendor, I have days when the horrors of the world leave me in a conundrum.  I see violence becoming run-of-the-mill mundane; I hear people becoming more self-serving. Sometimes, I fear that every ounce of coveted humanity is being lost to iniquities.  But I will not allow my own anxieties to stifle the truth of my beliefs. And with each passing day my prayers seem to come often and regularly, not so much from duty, but from realizing my dependence on God in every aspect of my life.

I know prayer is not magic. It is not a guarantee against suffering. It does not make demands. I pray with conviction because I believe no matter what the circumstances, I function best when I am in relationship with God available to me through prayer. Prayer is for my benefit, not God’s.

This is what it’s like to believe: it means to be confident of much and yet to remain unsure of much. It is to know that God is real and yet it is also to wonder, frequently, what God’s purposes are. It is to be sure that prayer prayed according to the will of God will be answered, and yet to be constantly aware that neither I nor my prayers are in control of the answers. I do not have all the answers. But I know the one who does.

I pray. I pray believing that prayer can have a positive influence on the world and the people in it. I pray that we are moved beyond the limits of our humanity. That we give and love purely and without limitations. That we invite our souls to transform and heal the scars of an embattled world. Because deep inside, my heart still believes in humanity. My heart believes in a good fight against wrong, standing firm and holding onto the power from above. My heart believes in the beauty of the earth and the blessings of the Divine.  My heart believes in life, its sanctity and our purpose in it. My heart believes in the all-encompassing Presence above, beneath, around and beyond, and most importantly, within.  My heart believes in prayer.

This Season, what do I want most in this world. What will I ask? What will I ask in prayer from that place of within, that place of silence where I meet with the Everything that is? I pray.

That we be guided by our gifts and use them to the benefit of others. That our gifts be at work in the world as they come soaring out of our very souls and find easy expression in the things we do and love best. That we embrace them, celebrate them, use them to look after each other’s interests, to help other people be freer from pain and fear, and to contribute to the happiness of others. Because ultimately, being kind to others is being kind to yourself.

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A Christmas Prayer

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This Christmas,

May happiness decorate your heart
As you harbor memories of warm family gatherings.
With the bedrock of your faith
May you weave your traditions into a blanket of love
That wraps around your circle of family and friends.

And sometimes,
When the world forgets the importance of kindness,
When it forgets to listen, or When words will not help;
When it no longer recognizes the comfort of a Quiet Presence, and
When it loses sight of hope,
May your blanket be the bedrock that restores the world with faith,
Comforts it with hope, and
Wraps it with love.

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Practice Gratitude

You and I, we have one common desire that we share with the people of this world. We share the desire to be happy. How we imagine our happiness may differ from one another, but the desire for happiness is unequivocally shared.

My father was undeniably a happy person. Although he grew up in “poverty” with perhaps very little material possessions and had to work at a very young age before he could complete an education at a later age, he said he was never in need. He said he was a fortunate man for all the opportunities given to him in every moment of life. He lived life in the moment and acted out of a sense of enough and not out of a sense of scarcity. He was a man who lived gratefully. And his gratitude was the key to his happiness.

But is it really the happy people who are grateful? I know a number of people who have everything (or so it seems to me) that it would take to be happy, and they are not happy. They are wanting something else or they want more of the same. And I know people who have misfortunes that we ourselves would not want to have, and yet they are deeply happy. They radiate happiness. What is the difference? New scientific research shows that those who feel happy are the ones who are thankful, grateful for what they have or whatever comes their way as opposed to concentrating on the more and what they don’t have. The research concludes that acting out in gratitude makes you a happier person, more disciplined, more able to achieve your goals, physically healthier, less stressed, and happiness frees you from emotional pain. It appears my father had the right idea.

Does that mean that we must be grateful for everything? Certainly not. We cannot be grateful for violence, for war, for oppression, for exploitation, for the loss of a life, for unfaithfulness, for bereavement. …However, we can be grateful in every given moment for the opportunity, even when we are confronted with something that is terribly difficult, to rise to the occasion and respond to the opportunity that is given to us. With gratitude, we affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received, and it makes us “pay it forward.” It could be in the simplest of behaviors…a smile, a pat on the back, help with the groceries, a thank you, a thumbs up, letting someone go ahead of you in line, buying a bouquet of flowers, a phone call, a meal, small change, or finding $10 in your pocket.

A few years back, on my way to work, I made a habit of stopping by the 7/11 to pick up a cup of coffee. The area wasn’t the best of neighborhoods. Panhandlers and people who carried their world in a shopping cart used to hang there especially on cold days hoping for small change or a kind offer of a warm cup of coffee. Among them was a woman seemingly new to the area. I picked up my coffee, returned to the car and was about to drive off when I remembered I had an older jacket in the back seat of my car. I hadn’t used it for over a year. On impulse, I grabbed it and gave it to the woman. Her gratitude radiated from her eyes as she said “Thank you.” A few days later, I dropped by the 7/11 for my usual a.m. coffee and the same woman was there, wearing the jacket. Before I could enter the store, she approached me, and taking her hand out of the one pocket she handed me a folded $10 bill and said, “I found this in the pocket.” I was touched, not by her honesty so much as touched by her content and satisfied heart. Gratefulness out of a sense of enough. It was my turn to thank her. I told her she could keep the money on condition that she buy me my cup of coffee that morning. The joy on her face that she was able to do something for me with dignity could not be captured in a picture. I think we both unleashed our hearts to sing that day.

I’ve lived long enough to learn that we can all be people who live gratefully. Practice gratitude. Cultivate it. Live it daily. It’s the key to happiness.

On this Thanksgiving Day, for what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly grateful. Happy Thanksgiving.

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Call of the Heart

Morals and values are a part of the behavioral aspect of a person. Both are correlated to each other. Moral is a system of beliefs that is taught for deciding good or bad whereas values are personal beliefs or something that comes from within. These are emotionally related for deciding right or wrong. Moral is a motivation or a key for leading a “good” life in the “right” direction whereas value is absorbed within a person. It can be good or bad depending on the person’s choice. I refer to it as “a call of the heart.”

It was 1998 and I was driving my daughter and son to school. As always, we talked of current events and at the time every newsfeed was covering the Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky scandal. I was as clear in my thoughts then as I am now. Clinton was President, and the specifics of his behavior went against my anticipated and expected behavior of a president. I argued against the European claim and those of others that infidelity and such behavior were common practice and why was America making such a fuss over what most men do?  Well, we were making such a fuss, at least I was, because this was not the example of acceptable behavior I wanted to set for my children. Absolutely not! What would I be teaching my son and daughter about values and ethics of responsibility if I were to accept or excuse such behavior? As a woman, as a mother, as an Armenian, as an American, I wanted to stand tall in my principles, and instill in my children the deep seated moral driven value of understanding the consequences of decisions and actions and answers to their behavior. An act repeated more than once is neither accident nor mistake but a purposeful intent–“a call of the heart.”

It is 2016 and news of Trump and his bigotry, his denigrating remarks and salacious opinion of women has taken over the country’s newsfeeds. I am aghast, not so much that one man claiming to be a world entrepreneur now running for the office of the president can be so debauched, but more aghast at how far backward the United States has fallen with its lack of respect and dignity toward women and girls. And now, misogynists have the gall to suggest repealing the 19th Amendment! Where are the brave men and women of this nation? It took 150 years after signing of our Declaration of Independence for women to win the right to vote. It took 72 years of organized struggle on the part of many courageous women and men to be treated with some element of respect and dignity. Tragically, any man or woman who accepts such lewd acts and words of impropriety as “it’s what boys do,” is spitting in the face of grandmothers and mothers on whose shoulders they were raised; women who fought tirelessly for an ounce of dignity owed them over the years.

In order to move forward, we have to recognize and give credit to those women on whose shoulders we stand. We must recognize mothers and women who have educated their children; recognize those who have cared for the sick; women who have tilled the soil and brought food to the markets and our tables; acknowledge and recognize the women who fought for independence and stood up for justice, equality and peace.

As a woman, as a mother, as an Armenian, as President of the Armenian International Women’s Association-LA (AIWA-LA) and as an American, I want to speak up for women in this country — women who are raising children on minimum wage, women who can’t afford child care, women whose lives are threatened by violence, women with absentee husbands, women who are subjected to sexual harassment by predators running for the office of the President. What low behavioral responsibilities are we setting for our sons and daughters? I work tirelessly with AIWA to teach young girls that a woman owns her self-worth by advocating for gender equality and demanding her rights to basic human decency and respect. How can I, or any other, accept such indecent behavior as that portrayed by a presidential candidate? Those of us who have the privilege to be here, to have attained a small portion of our rights as equal citizens of the world must not forget the struggles of the brave women before us. If we fail to respect women who comprise more than half the world’s population, then we are seriously discriminating against our selves. And if we stand silent when our fathers, husbands and sons speak to our mothers, sisters and daughters with such decadence and degeneracy, we are just as responsible for accepting the consequences of crudity as “locker room–it’s what boys do” talk. Men and women, let me remind you: Gender-based harassment, both sexual and not, is against the law in the U.S.

An act repeated more than once is neither accident nor mistake but a purposeful intent—“a call of the heart.”

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Man of God

There are moments or happenings in one’s life which become pivotal moments. Life changing events, moments of illumination, when you realize something important that will change the course of events to come. You know. Like when you hike up a mountain and are struck with the beauty of the earth below, glide across a vast desert made stunning with undulating dunes, or stand at the edge of a cliff and are bewitched by the magnitude of the globe.  Like when you work at something you love and time elapses so fast the whole sequence becomes just one thread weaving into another.  A moment when you just meet someone for the first time and watch his smile open up hearts, and it feels perfect.

I had (among many) one such significant moment. I met Pope Francis on his pastoral trip to Armenia in June. I was privileged not just to meet him but to be serving in his presence during breakfast and dinner while he stayed in Holy Etchmiadzin. (I was part of a team that accompanied Rubina Begoumian of Robert’s Catering who was chosen to oversee the catering for delegates and tend to the meals of the Pope and his immediate entourage.)

I met a man of God. A man whose expressions of love, kindness and faith restore hope.

He walks into the kitchen to greet us all, to take our hands one by one with no exception. His eyes rest on each individual.  First, the housekeeper at the kitchen sink, then the chef, the caterer, the assistant, the waiter, my hand. He thrives on personal contact, and he spends part of the morning before breakfast greeting us in the kitchen. He thanks us for our service spreading that same smile that has travelled the world over.

There is a simplicity about him. He asks for nothing opulent or too decorative. He likes toast and jam for breakfast. As I stand to wait at his table of twelve, I look at him while he talks. He speaks—quietly at first, though with steady voice…almost prophetic. He laughs. He listens. He looks so ordinary.

He is friend to the people, but he is also a solitary man retreated in thought and prayer. “He wakes up around 4:30 am,” I was told by one of the Fathers. He prays. He prays with the psalms; he celebrates Mass; he prays the Rosary; he prays in adoration. He prays in the evening; he prays after dinner. I catch a glimpse of an evening prayer. He drops slowly to his knees thinking of himself less while seeking His glory, His righteousness.  He is cloaked in humility.

Christians, clergy, lay people, blue collar workers, rich folk, poor folk, children, youth and old gather the pathways of Etchmiadzin to catch a glimpse of the Pope, to be moved by the simplest of his gestures — a wave, a smile, a benediction, a touch —  as he makes his way through to the open air altar. There is something astounding in his obvious humility, empathy and above all, devotion.  He seeks the meek, he speaks out strong, he leads, confirming once more that Christianity is based on principles of charity and compassion, forgoing “a culture of prosperity.”  A humble reminder that we should all live not for the things of this life but for the rewards of eternity. To be men and women of God.

Perhaps I am envious.  I want my church, our church, the Armenian Apostolic Church to make a lasting difference in people’s lives—to be, as the Pope often put it, “a hospital on a battlefield, taking in all who were wounded, regardless of which side they fought on.” I want the focus of our churches to be on the dispossessed; to wander the city’s worst neighborhoods, talk to AIDS patients, sit on park benches and hear confessions from prostitutes, heal wounds, be courageous, give alms to the poor, feed the hungry, advocate for human rights, be inclusive, speak the truth in love, speak out in the midst of sin, to not lose touch with realities in life, connect with simplicities, be vigilant against pride, to fear God not man.

 

 

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World Changer

During a recent trip to Armenia I had the good fortune of visiting the American University of Armenia where I met with 17 young bright minds passionately involved in changing the world in which they live. They expressed their love of heritage and culture and vocalized their concerns to create a fertile environment where youth could bravely leverage their skills, shape their future and determine the outcome of their successes. All wanted to make a change in their own world.

Traveling home on another long flight that was to connect in London, I sat next to a young woman who, after a brief nod of acknowledgement, seemed more eager to turn her face to the window and wrap herself in her own body, as though she were fighting with her own reality. She fidgeted with her own clothing; unsettled in her seat, she moved around, yet she looked paralyzed, clinging and clutching onto an invisible bubble of a world that had completely swallowed her.

Her name, she said, was Angelica. She was on her way to Harvard having just been awarded a Fulbright Scholarship for a two year study in Comparative Fine and Preforming Arts. The subject of her research: Compare and Decipher Changes in Society as Communicated and Depicted Through Contemporary Art. Did Art Generate Resistance to Change or Facilitate Flow? She was to connect on route in London with four other Fulbright scholars from around the world, (India, China, Israel, and Iran) and together they were to travel to Harvard. Anxiety, and a crippling fear of the unknown had consumed her. Here was a smart, worldly, technologically capable, well-informed young adult. She would have access to all kinds of tools, from computers and internet to museums and galleries, to a degree from one of the world’s finest universities, each of which would open doors to knowledge and power from which anything is possible. Yet, she felt fearful. Fearful of change. She knew change was inevitable. It was evident across the globe. People were discontent and manifesting their want for change everywhere. But on a personal level, she felt uncertain because she didn’t know what this experience would do to her. She said she was fearful of the change that could take place within her.

Angelica had chosen to undertake this journey although, she said, it was inconsistent with her nature. She was not one to easily abandon old habits and beliefs. Nonetheless, it was a willful choice to apply for the study. She had taken a leap of faith even with her reluctance to give up the beliefs that she had rigidly adhered to for so long within her small town environment, her family, education and comfortable job. But now on the plane, she was having second thoughts leaving her comfort zone, not wanting to take risks and venture from the familiar into unfamiliar territory. The self-discovery that she had already started the chain reaction of change with her new pursuits was a fearful realization. Add to that, Angelica feared she would discover opportunities that she would never have thought possible… chances that would have a profound influence on her personal life that could be entirely conflicting with her small town beliefs. Change. It had begun from her and from within.

A few hours later I passed Angelica on my way to my departure gate. She was sitting at her gate with a group I assumed were the colleagues she was to meet. Huddled together, having found each other from the four corners of the world, they were already conversing, sharing, comparing, exchanging, learning, discovering. I smiled to myself as I recalled Neale D. Walsh who said “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”

What was once frightening to Angelica was becoming her new norm. She was already embracing the changes that were taking place in her life. Angelica was making small changes in her own world. One day she would be a world changer.

The Fulbright Program is the international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government and is designed to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries. Each Fulbright’s experience is unique and depends on a variety of factors, including project details, location, and language abilities. Despite the variety of experiences, Fulbrights all describe their experiences as life changing and having a profound influence on their professional and personal endeavors. (Institute of International Education, Fulbright US Student Program)

 

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