I had to get off the train It was taking me too many places I didn’t want to go I thought I’d be locked up I just couldn’t play the long game My mind would not allow it So I took my express pass I hope you will understand I hope you will forgive me
I do forgive Because I have no other choice I have to So that I can keep chugging forward But time rushes by so slowly And it will always be just yesterday for me That you left this earth
One day my train will reach the station But there will be many more stops and starts along the way And you will be there with me in my heart and mind and soul and dreams You never leave my essence And you will be waiting for me at the final stop
Holly is beautiful
Mistletoe is festive
Red roses are romantic
they can make you bleed
The Christmas tree is lovely
it had to die in order for us to enjoy
Families are wonderful
we love and hurt each other
We celebrate the birth of a baby that will be one day die
but not of old age
We make merry but there is a sadness that lurks underneath
Pure peace and unadulterated joy, these are the things of the next world.
Here we groan
Here we sing songs of lament
and Christmas cheer
We press on
Those who remain
The One who will die, He is our peace
I find I can endure much if I just have hope
How have you been gone for five Christmases already? We miss you tremendously. Slowly, painfully, agonizingly we have crawled out of the pit of despair that we fell into when you left us. We have tentatively taken hesitating steps back into life. We have guarded our hearts against unkind and unthinking words of people who really are just trying to make themselves feel better. We have found fellow sufferers who are journeying this path too, and joined them.
Tragedies have happened. Your good friend Derric departed this world in a horrendous car crash, as I’m sure you know, leaving behind Cheyenne and four little children. We lost Grandpa John after a long illness. Others have faced the agony of loss of their beloved children, some as young as newborns, some just starting out their adult life. It doesn’t make sense. All I know is that this isn’t heaven.
I am so proud of your sisters who have carried on bravely, refusing to be destroyed. They are pursuing their dreams and making good choices to tend to their hearts. Dad and I are doing the same. But what does it look like to move forward in this life without you? How is it even possible? We do it because we must.
I am so thankful for your friends, who remember me and text me at the holidays and on Mother’s Day and on your birthday. I am very grateful for new friends who have been so supportive and understanding. I am especially thankful for the people we met after you passed away who tell us they feel like they know you because of what we share with them. You are very much alive in our minds and hearts.
I’m thankful that you come to me in my dreams, that you show me heaven and remind me to keep looking up. I’m thankful that you came to Italy with me, visiting me in my sleep.
You are not forgotten. But there will always be a Nate-shaped hole in our lives.
I love you so much.
For those that are grieving, know that we are, too. For those who have not faced this agony, I am grateful. I wish none of us had. If you want to better understand, read this: An Open Letter to Grievers
When we all speak the same language, wear the same clothes, observe the same holidays that means we are unified, right? Or is this just surface uniformity? What is the source of true unity?
It’s an age-old story. Powerful rulers come in, take over a variety of peoples, and in the name of “unity,” establish a common language and culture. The Roman empire used the exact same layout for every new city they established. Latin was the language of the empire and had a strong unifying force. Later when the Roman empire fell, the Roman Catholic church took over many of its functions: courts, armies, record keeping, assisting the poor, etc. And they kept the Latin. Latin morphed from the language of the empire to the language of the church and later the language of the universities. On the outside, this makes sense. Everyone can communicate. You can attend a Catholic mass anywhere in the world and know what is going on. You can share intellectual ideas and scientific discoveries.
The Soviet Union was very similar. All the “republics” had the exact same apartment buildings, factories, bread, buses, and vodka. All train schedules were in “Moscow time” even for completely different time zones. In the 1975 Soviet movie, The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath!, a man ends up in the wrong city by accident but is convinced he is in the right place because everything looks the same. In the USSR, everyone spoke Russian. It was the language of the government and the language of the schools. It brought about “unity,” well, that is it forced a unity of Russian language because without it you could not get a university degree or a good job.
But at what cost? This type of unity is not real, not heart-felt. It is a surface, forced unity and greatly resented.
We have many modern stories of enforced “unity” going on in our world today. One is the Uigher population in China. When I visited Xinjiang province in northwest China back in 2007 I was surprised to see brand new, enormous highways that had been built in a relatively poor and obscure part of China, home to the Uigher, Moslem population. My friends explained that these roads were built as part of a resettlement plan to move Han Chinese into the area so that the Uigher population would change from being the area’s majority culture to the minority culture which is exactly what has happened. Now all schools in Xinjiang are in Chinese, not Uigher which is the world’s oldest Turkic language. But now it is in danger of dying out because of the government policies in China. And as many are aware, China has instituted “re-education camps” to force the Uigher population to assimilate through force, often brutal.
In strong contrast is the nation of Kazakhstan where I lived for 16 years. Kazakhstan became independent in 1991. When we arrived in 1995 there were vestiges of Soviet culture everywhere such as statues of Lenin, streets named “Sovietskaya,” etc. Watching the process of change towards becoming a strong, independent nation was fascinating. One of the first steps that the government took was to make Kazakh the official language of the country and to require all government officials to become fluent. Kazakhstan also renamed many of its streets and cities after famous Kazakh people and even moved the capital to the center of the country to indicate that this land did not belong to the Russians. It worked. I saw an increase in pride of speaking Kazakh, embracing Kazakh cultural arts and practicing Kazakh culture.
But…it was easy for Kazakhstan to replace one type of cultural master with another. The new ruler was oil. When oil was discovered, money flooded into Kazakhstan. Suddenly where there had been a cash economy now there were banks and credit cards. Where there had been oil tankers on the side of the road there were now fancy gas stations. Instead of the only shopping option being outdoor bazaars and small neighborhood stores, there were now grocery stores and shopping malls. In villages with no running water everyone had a cell phone. To be clear I am not against progress and making our lives easier. My concern is that we not lose the core of one’s culture in the midst of progress. Kazakhs were nomadic for centuries and had been known for their connection to nature and their love of the steppe, horses, yurts, family and poetry. But few Kazakhs venture out on the steppe now. When we forget where we came from we are easily assimilated into whatever is the culture of power at the moment.
Another pitfall of seeking to promote cultural diversity is the problem of violent extremism. Kazakhstan has tried to honor all cultures since its inception, codifying into law religious freedom. However, it’s tricky because Kazakhstan is not that far from Afghanistan, land of the Taliban, and Kazakhstan must safeguard against extremist subgroups who seek to tear the nation apart. So Kazakhstan does put limitations on religious activities. The US wrestles with similar issues, being very diverse from state to state and even within states and having a high value on freedom of expression which can so easily morph into extremism. It is not a simple matter to find the line between national unity and allowing for individual beliefs.
The book of Revelations contains a beautiful vision of every tongue and tribe and nation and people worshiping in heaven. This to me is the core of true unity – to have the same love, being one in spirit as stated in Philippians 2:2. Some in the church have embraced this cultural vision. St. Jerome created the Vulgate, translating the Bible into the language of his people. The eastern Orthodox church was one of the earliest to allow services in the language of the people and allowed patriarchs in multiple countries as opposed to the one central leader. Wycliffe Bible translators have translated the Bible into a plethora of languages, many remote and spoken by few people. As Lamin Saneh explains in his book Translating the Message “To be grounded in your culture and to be a faithful Christian are complementary” (97). The aim of Jesus, as I understand, is not to create one people who all worship God in the same way and have the same culture, but to multiply his glory by revealing the gospel in multiple languages and cultures.
There is a way in which the church is like-minded because we have the same love and the same spirit. That’s real unity. We have the same love, but different cultures and languages. The beauty of this is that one culture may illustrate a specific aspect of the glory of God more accurately than another culture. Everyone reflects aspects of God but no one culture on its own reflects it all. Cultural diversity is not to be feared but embraced. It’s not a question of either/or but both/and. Yes, it is helpful to have a common language. Yes, it is nice to have recognizable brands. Yes, it is good to make our lives easier. But we should also press into that which makes us unique and bring to the common table what others do not. It is essential to encourage unity which embraces diversity rather than passing off uniformity as a guise. In that way we are all enriched and the controlling force is a love freely shared rather than a system imposed on us by those more powerful.
For my beloved daughters by Kim Aasland (September 2022)
They are the brave ones The sometimes overlooked ones The ones who have withstood trauma that young people should never have to bear The ones who pressed forward with life Believing by faith that better days were ahead
Lovely Authentic Undefeated Real Armed with truth
How strong their impulse to give life How valiantly they fought How courageously they withstood the ravages of illness and death Refusing to be defeated They drew together, not apart
Loving Intelligent Never unkind to others Near to my heart Emotionally wise Affirming
How I love them My brave, beautiful, tender girls. How they bring life to me always And tenderness to the world Extending grace upon grace upon grace
Now as always Affecting the world for good Offering life Maintaining hope Inspiring faith
How I wish I could take this heartache away How thankful I am that we stand with each other I could not be more proud and grateful For my brave, beautiful, tender girls.
The problem is that I don’t feel like I fit here in America. Too much of me is African and Central Asian. I love too laugh loudly and cry deeply and feel my feelings to the bone. I love to hold another woman’s hand and stroke her hair because she is my friend and I care deeply about her. I say what I think and ask questions I “shouldn’t” and I want to know everyone’s story.
A while back my husband told me about an assignment he gave his anthropology students to find someone who is different from themselves and ask them their life history. I was like – why is that an assignment? I do that all the time. But I guess most people don’t. My 19 year old daughter explained that kids of her generation don’t ask personal questions as much because there are too many hot-button topics out there. That makes me sad. I have a dear friend who thinks very differently than me about vaccines and politics and such but we talk easily about it and laugh at our differences. Friends like that are few and far between. Friends who want to hear my deep heart and tell me theirs are few and far between. It makes me feel kind of alone in this world, or at least in this country that I call my own.
Since my son died I have become even more aware of these differences. The people that have been most helpful to me are those who have been through deep waters and understand what grief feels like and are willing to talk about it. They also don’t fit because our culture tries so hard to sanitize grief and keep it at arms’ length. I get the feeling that for the rest I may make them mildly to moderately uncomfortable because I am an example that yes, bad things do happen to good people and no, God doesn’t always spare your children. As my husband so insightfully said to me, people choose their theologies based on what is most comforting to them. So if you haven’t known deep loss you believe that, if you have enough faith, anything can be healed because that gives you comfort that you will be spared. But if you have known deep loss, you think differently. My friends who have known sorrow understand intuitively that what I really want is just for them to share my deep grief and to remember my son and to agree with me that it shouldn’t have happened this way. I appreciate the way Kazakhs come running up to the house of mourning with wailing.
People who are willing to go to deep places and talk about the hard things are the ones who have brought life to me. Many have experienced tragedy and injustice as racial minorities and foreigners in this country. Others have walked with someone suffering mental or other illness, or have themselves walked that path. These friends do not try to pretend. They just feel with me. Jesus, the man of sorrows, asked his Father to take the cup away but He did not. So Jesus drank it saying, “not my will but Thine be done.” Job, having lost everything, said “though He slay me yet I will praise Him.” Jesus and Job are also my friends in suffering. But suffering here in the land of plenty can be a lonely venture. Grief is sanitized and fixed in one hour seminars and support groups. And this is the path my family and I walk, as do many others.
I don’t really have a nice, neat lesson to wrap up this blog post with. So I’m just going to let it stand as is. If you also don’t fit it, let me know. Maybe we can have coffee and share our stories.
A liminal space is a place between two worlds. A liminal space can be a cave which is both on top of the earth but also in the earth. It can be a beach which is the physical space between ocean and land. It can be adolescence which is the temporal space between childhood and adulthood. It can be moving back in with your parents after your freshman year of college for the summer feeling like a new person but coming back to a familiar place that no longer feels the same. It can be an airport which is the space between two destinations. It can be moving to a brand new city that doesn’t feel like home yet but eventually will. When a close family member passes, it is the emotional space between feeling like they should still be walking on the earth and accepting that they are not.
I have often lived in the space between two worlds. There is my home country, the USA, where I have spent about half my life and then there are my host countries (Canada, Turkey, Italy, Austria, Nigeria and Kazakhstan) where I have spent the other half of my life. When I’m in one, I miss the other one. I don’t think my experience is unique to me. We all have places set vividly in our minds where we no longer exist but are still very vivid to us, whether it be our elementary school, our old neighborhood, a previous job or many other places and/or times significant to us.
I had an interesting insight not long ago. I know that I often seek out new places to go and new people to meet. I’ve always thought this was because I like adventure and I get bored easily. But recently I have begun to wonder if part of my desire is to situate myself in liminal spaces in order to gain new insights and revelation.
Liminal spaces are to be embraced, for they come infrequently but with the potential for great insight. We do not always live in liminality. Often our lives are routine, normal and comforting. But when we find ourselves in a liminal space, that can be an amazing opportunity. It is like a portal into understanding through which we step outside of our normality and examine what is often too familiar to be recognized. When we travel, we frequently find our senses heightened and insights begin to enter our mind. We see our existence with fresh eyes and realize new truths. We perceive our home that we have left in a different way. But this liminality is fleeting. We are wired as humans to get used to our surroundings. So after a few weeks or months, what was once new begins to feel normal and we lose those special senses.
It’s like God. He is all around us, permeating every minute of every day. Yet we don’t perceive the meaning of each moment because it is just too much to take in. It takes special intention to find Him many times. I have my students do an exercise called “Fifty Things” in which they pick a random hour they were awake the day before and make a list of fifty words or phrases to describe that one hour. Students are stunned when they slow down time to find out how much actually occurred during that one hour. Being limited, we cannot possibly take in this level of understanding of every waking hour of every day. So meaning stays hidden from us.
We don’t often talk in our Western Christianity about God hiding Himself. Usually we focus on how clear His presence is from His creation, that the heavens declare His glory. But what of the verses entreat us to seek what is hidden? I will give you hidden treasures, riches stored in secret places, so that you may know that I am the LORD, the God of Israel, who summons you by name. (Isaiah 45:3) Later in that same chapter, Isaiah writesTruly, You are a God who hides Himself, O God of Israel, Savior! (Isaiah 45:15). God isn’t always obvious. Sometimes He hides Himself and His truth and calls on us to seek it out. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. (Jeremiah 29:13).
Why would God hide Himself? Why does it take special effort or circumstances to gain insight? As is written in Proverbs 2: 3-5: Indeed, if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding,and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. It must be that the seeking causes us to value the treasure more, as with the man who found a pearl in a field and sold everything he owned to buy that field (Matt 13:44-46).
When we find ourselves in a liminal space our immediate inclination is often to try to find a way out of it. We don’t like feeling uncomfortable and uncertain. We don’t want to question what we used to be confident of. However, I would urge you to consider viewing this space as an opportunity to be embraced. Don’t distract yourself by trying too quickly to make the place feel like home. Don’t numb the strangeness only with comfort. Instead, press into it. Write down your questions and your insights. Ask God what He is speaking to you in this new place. Dialogue with trusted people about how this liminality is affecting you. There is great treasure hidden in these times, just waiting for you to seek it out. The liminality breaks up the soil that usually covers it making the ground much easier to dig through to uncover the riches. Don’t waste your discomfort. See what God has for you in the liminal space.
We all come from inside a woman. That’s the only way. Someone was generous enough to house us inside her for 9 months All our limbs and blood and brains and waste Full of dreams and hopes for our life as well as hers. And then having ushered us into the world, she continued to feed us, house us, and take care of our waste. And she loved us. Not perfectly, because she is human, but God-like in her provision of our all in all.
For us she bled For us she agonized For us she cried
Her power is so awe-inspiring that something rises in the world to put woman down, to belittle her and use her. And yet she loves. Not perfectly, because she is human, too.
Poppy sits with her chicks They didn’t make it But she sits with them anyway She is bearing witness to their life.
For those of us with children who didn’t make it We bear witness to their lives. For those of us whose children walk on this earth, our desires for their well-being never cease.
To all mothers we say thank you. Thank you for the blood, and the tears and the exhaustion. You carry the human race forward And in carrying us you carry the image of God.
I literally cannot believe I’m even writing this post. It seems so weird to think that I actually wrote a book and am going to publish it. What the what? White Swan and the Heavenly Lake is the title of the historical fiction book I just finished writing. My aim is to release it during the first or second week of May 2022, but before I do that I wanted to tell you all a little bit of the back story of how this book came to be.
Back in the summer of 2002 I was living in Kazakhstan with my husband and four children who at the time were 13, 11, 8 and 3. Some dear friends of ours who also lived in Kazakhstan and were fluent in Chinese invited us to take a kind of backroads trip to China with them and another family who also had young children. It was the adventure of a lifetime! We didn’t travel to the usual tourist stops of Beijing and Shanghai, but instead travelled overland by bus and train through the western border of China into the Xinjian region of China which is largely Muslim and has significant Uigher and Kazakh populations.
The trip could be a book in itself but suffice it to say there were plenty of adventures including pushing our way through enormous crowds at the Kazakhstan-China border on foot with ten young children, trying to keep our overnight bus driver awake so he didn’t crash while driving through the back roads of China, eating “beer beans” for breakfast, having our kids comment on the cute mice on the restaurant floor only to realized they were rats and, well, like I said that is a different story.
Back to my book. As we traveled up from the Chinese town of Ili into the mountains towards a beautiful and mysterious mountain lake, my friend told me an origin story about the Kazakhs living in China. The tale was alluring and something in my spirit grabbed hold of me and said This is significant. When we arrived at Lake Sayram at sunset, its mysterious beauty made me understand why the tales and fables surrounding it were so compelling. This land is the home of the original Kazakhs, some of whom still live in yurts following the traditional way. In this modern age, so many Kazakhs have lost touch with their ancestors’ deep connection to the earth and also to their Naiman roots in Nestorian Christianity. I knew I had to delve into this and learn more.
Fast forward five months to November 2006 and it was the National November Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) which focuses on helping people write their novels. The idea is to write about 1,500 words per day for 30 days during the month of November. And that’s what I did, along with research on the Naiman who are one of the predecessors to the Kazakhs. Now, remember that this was sixteen years ago. Facebook had barely started two years prior. There were few good self-publishing options. I wasn’t sure if the book was any good. So I stuck it up on a virtual shelf and forgot about it. I knew it was there in my computer, but I didn’t know if it was any good or what to do with it.
Then in March 2022 my daughter Laura asked me to look for an old video and I began going through old external hard drives. I didn’t find the video, but I found the historical fiction novel I had written. I downloaded it onto my laptop and began to read it. It was such a strange experience; I remembered the story, but it almost felt like someone else had written it. And I actually liked it. I thought I would read this book!
Now here’s what really blew my mind. Without giving too much of the plot away, I have to tell you that I wrote about things in the book back in 2006 which actually later happened to me in my real life. Sixteen years ago I wrestled through circumstances faced by my characters which I had no idea I was later to actually experience myself. I still find this hard to believe, apart from God’s foreknowledge. Also, this is why the book had no ending. There were experiences I had to go through in my life, really tough situations, before I could write the ending. When God brought the book back to my attention, I knew exactly how to end it.
So I have spent the last two months editing the book, adding chapters, a glossary and character list, writing the ending and a few extra chapters. I read it aloud to my husband a few chapters a night and he encouraged me to move forward with publishing it. So here I am. The verse that comes to mind is Proverbs 13:19a, “A longing fulfilled is sweet to the soul.”
If there is a lesson to be gleaned here, it is that God is always at work. Sometimes the purposes He gives us take a long time to accomplish. Sometimes He allows very difficult circumstances in our lives. But if God has put a vision on your heart, don’t give up. You never know if today might be the day He brings it back to you and accomplishes it and you stand back, amazed. That doesn’t negate the dreadful of the tragedies we have faced. But it does give me hope for an ultimate good outcome one day in heaven.