I can picture the scene as if it was yesterday. I am lying on the top bunk in my dormitory. The louvered windows allow a mountain breeze to come through and the sun shines brightly through pine trees. It is springtime in Murree and I am seven years old. In the distance I hear the sound of musical scales in major and minor keys being played on old pianos, slightly tinny and out of tune. The players are disciplined, but clearly young with limited skills. Pungent smells waft through windows from the large kitchen two floors below alerting me that today our lunch will be curry and rice. The sounds of Urdu, Punjabi, and English meld together, a kaleidoscope of diversity unrealized until I am older. As the memory returns, I close my eyes and I am completely content.
Two distinct places come to mind when I think of the place and concept of ‘home.’ The first is that of several different cities where my parents lived in Pakistan during my childhood. The second place is the more constant: My boarding school near the town of Jhika Gali, nestled in the foothills of the Himalayan range of mountains in the country of Pakistan.
My memories are strong of the place that shaped me, that formed me into who I am today. I was six years old when I first went to boarding school. I could barely tie my shoelaces; much less navigate the sometimes cruel environment of an institutional setting. But it was in the institutional halls of boarding school where I encountered the God who I would grow to love.
For three months at a time, I would share a bedroom with seven roommates supervised by a housemother struggling to meet the needs of 20 to 30 little children. Children, who needed to eat, brush their teeth, bathe, dress, study, and sleep. Along with the practical needs were the emotional and spiritual needs. These are the unseen needs that satisfy the deepest of human longings; namely love and belonging. It was a seemingly impossible task, but we would not know this until much later in our lives.
The first night away from home, I was always exhausted and sleep came quickly. I woke early in the morning, disoriented and unsure of where I was. When I remembered, the blur and taste of hot, salty tears clouded my vision and lingered on my tongue. I dared not show my tears; it was not safe. We were all small, all facing separation and loss, all experiencing the first of many times of homesickness. We were surrounded by others as young as we were, by others with the same tears and fears, the same deep sense of loss.
No one heard or saw my tears; instead, they fell silently, invisibly. Soon others would wake, and happy chatter would overshadow the sad. We were already a family of sorts, complete with the aunts and uncles who served as our dorm parents. But each time I entered boarding school, the early morning scene would repeat itself, from the time I was six until the day I graduated from high school.
A cold, metal-framed bunk bed and the living God were my only witnesses. The one captured my tears, the other comforted them.In that tiny, private bunk bed space my first fervent prayers for comfort went up to an unseen God in a Heaven that seemed far away, and I experienced his comfort and presence. It was in a bunk bed that this unseen God responded, an invisible hand reaching out to comfort a little girl far from her parents who held fast to a stuffed animal.
My boarding school years are long past and, like many others who grew up globally, many places in the world have become home for a time. Indeed, for me a recurring life-theme has been on place and home. But those early memories of boarding school still evoke in me tears and a deep sense of gratitude. There have been many places where my faith grew, where I met the big and hard questions of life. One of those places was surely a boarding school bunk bed, an icon of sorts, a solid witness to a faith that is written on my heart by God’s hand.
Marilyn R. Gardner is an adult third culture kid who grew up in Pakistan and then lived as an adult in Pakistan and Egypt. She birthed 5 kids on 3 continents, and went on to raise them in Pakistan and Egypt before moving to the United States. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 15 minutes from the international terminal where she flies to the Middle East & Pakistan as often as possible. She is the author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture & Belonging © Doorlight Publications, July 2014 and her newest memoir Passages Through Pakistan: An American Girl’s Journey of Faith ©Doorlight Publications, February 2017. Because of her passion for the Middle East, 50% of all royalties for any purchase of Passages goes towards refugee work there.
Welcome to a guest series I’m calling, “Home: Musings and Memories.” I’ve invited writers from all over the Internet to share their stories from home—in part, because later this year, I’m publishing a book called, Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home (IVP, May 2017). I believe home is our most fundamental longing, homesickness our most nagging grief. Most of all, I believe that the historic Christian faith has something to say about that desire and disappointment.
The story of Jesus is a home story.
Thanks for joining me and these other fantastic writers in the months ahead in our search for home—and the God who makes its hope possible.