Where Is Safe?

(As published in the Yemeni American News, August, 2016)

YAN G Is it Safe

My husband Steve and I sat motionless on the floor of our empty upper flat and watched with racing hearts the commotion below. We had just arrived in Dearborn, on a hot, sticky August afternoon in 2001. Waiting for our belongings to be shipped, we camped out in our uncomfortably warm living room for the night. We had just finished assuring family and friends back west that we were safe and settled in our recently rented flat. That’s when we heard the rustling in the backyard, and saw the red and blue flashes of the police cars reflecting on our front window. The chase was on. Numerous police officers followed a perpetrator of a gas station robbery on foot through our yard with shouts and flashlights… Was it safe to live in Dearborn, MI?

 Just 2 years earlier, on April 20, 1999, I sat with a cake decorator in Littleton, Colorado and picked delicate toppings and flavors for my wedding dream cake when we were interrupted by the shocking news of the Columbine High School shooting. Picking frosting flowers no longer seemed so fun… Was it safe to live in Littleton, CO?

What is a Sense of Safety?

Shortly after our furniture had arrived in Dearborn and we had settled in to our flat, I signed up to teach ESL at a local center in town. I was already nervous to meet the 30 beginning-English students from a variety of Arab countries. It was a big class and I was used to teaching kids, not grown women! What would they think of my games and songs? As it turned out, my first day of teaching was September 12, 2001. I was greeted by the intensity that all of us had unglued from our TVs to come to English class. We waited and wondered with the rest of the world how the horrendous 9-11 attacks and rescues would play out. I quickly adapted my lessons to teach my students words to share in collective grief, fear, and loss. Lessons many of them were already familiar with in Arabic as they had fled their home countries to move to a safer land. Playing games and singing songs no longer seemed so relevant.

After 9-11 we got numerous calls from our family and friends still concerned for our safety. Now, every time there is Islamophobic backlash directed at Dearborn after some display of terror, we still get that concerned question…Is it safe?

I don’t fully know what is safe. I feel a little naïve on the topic. I have lived with the luxury of not worrying about my safety up until the gas station robber was apprehended in my backyard. And thanks to the rapid response of the Dearborn police, that ended pretty quickly. Wikipedia says safety has to do with being protected from harm or being able to control recognized hazards. Considering the chaos of our world right now, what is safe? Are we able to control recognized hazards? As a mom, how do I keep my kids safe and control the recognized hazards in their little lives? Unlike some of my ESL students, I have never worried that my kids would hop, skip or jump over a land mine, or that loud thundering sounds after dark were anything more than a bad rainstorm. Is safety a right we have? A luxury? A privilege for some and not others?

Flags at Half-Staff

Haff StaffLast month, as my husband and I and our three children drove homeward after an epic road-trip across miles and miles of United States, we started to notice a pattern. Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Indiana, Illinois… My kids wanted to know what was wrong with all the American flags. I explained to them the phenomenon of “half-staff”. When something really bad happens in our country, people hang the flags at half-staff on purpose as a way to show their grief and support. My son asked, “Did something bad happen in each of these places?” I assured him that it was to show support, not because every city we passed had something horrendous happen in it. But deep inside, I shuddered at that fearful possibility.

Safety and Fear

If we don’t feel safe, our natural human reaction is fear. Saint John, disciple of Jesus the Messiah, said, Perfect love drives out fear. Fear will always creep in, but love is the best way to combat the fears we face. Carl Medearis, author and specialist in Muslim-Christian relations, poses a relevant and insightful question based on St. John’s quote: “If perfect love drives out fear, is it possible that perfect fear can also drive out love? Fear is the devil’s workshop. Perfect fear drives out love…Only one remains. Fear or love.”

If my safety is compromised, my natural reaction is fear. But fear and love are at odds in my soul. Fear leads to anger and hate. Love leads to freedom, joy and peace. Even though love is risky and sometimes dangerous, I choose that. As far as I am able, I want to combat the tempting momentum of fear by sharing stories of love and peace with the concerned callers checking in on my safety. I choose to teach love to my children. I choose to receive love from those around me…my students, my neighbors, my coworkers. I choose to extend love to someone living in fear. I don’t know if it’s safe to live here or there in our turbulent world, but I do know where I DON’T want to live, and that is in fear.

The Inspiration Case

DSC_0186For her 9th birthday, Ella received an incredible Inspiration Case. It has every color in various forms to create unlimited possibilities.  It’s where the tools meet the paper to draw out anything her imagination can fathom. Language is my inspiration case. I get giddy over the possibilities of punctuation or the playing on of words.  It’s the place where form and meaning come together to express profundity.

Should vs. Could: A Tale to two Modals

A few weeks ago, as my husband Steve and I sauntered down the wedding reception buffet line I surveyed the dinner potentials. Should I get the Caesar or Raspberry Spinach salad? Should I try the chicken or beef?  I ultimately chose chicken and spinach and sat down at table 18. As Steve joined me, he commented that I should have tried the beef, and shared a tasty bite with me.  The great thing about being in a buffet line is that nothing had to be either/or. Both/and was also possible. I could have both the beef and the chicken if I wanted to.   I could go back for more salad.

Should and could. Both are auxiliary verbs. Phonetically, they are different by one minimal sound—the /sh/ vs. the /k/. Both are useful tools in just the right context. Everyone needs the color of mud in their Inspiration Case, but indigo is so much more fun to use. Should gets a lot more use in my inner dialogue and feels like a slow drain of phantom energy. Could  on the other hand invites the possibility of joy and adventure. Should is a modal verb of doing the correct thing. Could is a modal expressing possibility or potential. Should and could function similarly in a sentence, but their use in the buffet line takes me down such different paths.

 The Game of Possibility

Last week a job offer that I wasn’t even looking for fell into my lap. I came home in a panic trying to figure out the right thing to do. Should I say yes? Should I turn it down? After my beef vs. chicken experiment, I decided to change my inner line of questioning—the game of possibility. I could take this job. Then again, I could say no. Possibility and potential. I was freeing myself up to be inspired by the prospect of a new path, but not tied down to the obligation of what lay before me.

I love how my longtime, kindred spirit friend Kate sums it up in her blog post, Don’t should on me!: We all know the suffocating weight of living under “should”.  Whether in eating or exercise, friendship or family, “should” robs us of joy and marches us forward with a dutiful sense of obligation…“Could” opens up our imagination and stirs up excitement about things to come.

She goes on to warn us, though, not to let an obligatory should insidiously sneak into our inspiration…it’s important not to “should” ourselves into positive thinking.  Even reading this, we could conclude, “From now on I will say “could” instead of “should”.  That would be nice, but I’m afraid it’s just a set up for another “should”.  Instead, we can gain awareness about how our thoughts are coming to us.  There are obligations in life.  Having a sense of duty is not always bad, but we can still frame it in the excitement of “could” rather than the drudgery of “should”.

Sometimes Ella does use her inspiration case for required homework purposes, but having the right set of tools even for the obligatory stuff makes it more inspiring. Even then, she could choose the color of mud, but she could also choose the color of chocolate, or both/and. The possibilities are endless!

My Wayne State Moment of Fame

This short article about my epic academic year was submitted by my advisor and published in the Wayne State newsletter for the Department of Classical and Modern Languages, Literatures and Cultures (CMLLC), 7-13-2016:

Masters in Language Learning (MALL) student Georgia Coats ends a successful year by leading group to Spain

Georgia Coats, a student in the MALL (Masters of Arts in Language Learning) program, hadIMG_0378 an amazingly successfully 2015-2106 academic year. She was awarded a Graduate Professional Scholarship to complete all but one course toward her degree. She developed a project that resulted in conference presentations at the Michigan World Languages Association and the Central States Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (CSCTFL). Coats received funding for her conference travel through a WSU Humanities Center travel grant. And in an exciting culmination to that work, she published her first article titled Analyzing Song Lyrics as an Authentic Language Learning Opportunity in the CSCTFL conference proceedings.
To round out this impressive year, in May 2016 Coats led seven adults from her church to Málaga, Spain, where they worked on improvement projects at a retreat center. In a first-class example of the training provided in the MALL program, she prepared the group for their trip with information about Spanish and Arab cultures and with exposure to the language to enable the group to enjoy their time in Spain as well as make the most of their efforts at the retreat center.

 

Generous Neighbors

I have had the joy of living in a predominantly Arab Muslim neighborhood for 15 years.  Here is an article I wrote that was published in the Yemeni American News–it is a reflection of the virtue of Generosity I have learned from my Middle Eastern neighbors, especially during the month of Ramadan.  My Arab neighbors make me a better Greek!

I opened the screen door and gave a hearty shout for my kids to come in for the night and get ready for bed. I love the ebb and flow of our neighborhood in east Dearborn that we have called home for the past 15 years. In the winter all the kids stay indoors and just grow inches taller, and then each spring there is a grand neighborhood reunion where kids pop out of houses like flowers popping out on the little Magnolia tree in our front yard.

And then there’s Ramadan

As is customary in our neighborhood during Ramadan, the time just before sunset gets eerily quiet and we can smell the savory treats being prepared in the houses around us. At dark, my kids come in to get ready for bed and that is just about the same time when we hear a faint knock on the door. This time it was the youngest daughter of one of our Yemeni neighbors with a plate full of piping hot meat and potato sambusas—YUM!

Suddenly my three kids start remembering what they love about Ramadan, being raised to follow Jesus the Messiah in a predominantly Muslim community. It’s not just the warm sambusas, syrupy yellow cake, Lebanese knafeh, or our all-time family favorite—layered, buttery sabayah sprinkled with black sesame seeds. It’s about the blessing of generosity, Ramadan Kareem. The Messiah Jesus teaches us to value generosity and hospitality. Our Muslim neighbors regularly model what that looks like in our community.

To my kids, Ramadan is a time of sharing and abundance. The first Eid al-Fitr etched in their memories is marked with girls in fancy dresses and boys donning daunting swords on their belts. Then there’s the candy, the henna, and even gifts of cash! Being handed dollar bills from neighborhood dads was mind-blowing for my little ones. Our neighbors set the standard high for generosity.

The Plate War continues

Being from a Greek immigrant home, I know how to battle in a plate war. When a dish comes to you full of flavorful favorites, you prepare to give it back fully loaded with more mouth-watering goodness. Bottom line: The plate never gets passed anywhere empty. Last summer during the Islamic month of fasting we got caught in a furious neighborhood plate war. We were preparing to leave on an epic summer road trip to visit family in my home state of Colorado. I was not on top of my game. I got swept under by the generosity of Ramadan. A plate came in from neighbors to the north of us and a second plate got handed to my kids from neighbors to the south. Then, foil-wrapped sabayah came from across the street! My kids and I scrambled to bake our favorite poppy-seed muffins and banana breads to return the plates amidst packing for our trip.   When it was all said and done, we still had one leftover blue floral-trimmed plate. Since then, we have spent the past year passing this plate to various neighbors on all sides, thinking we were returning it. Everyone keeps filling it and passing it back. We finally concluded that we don’t actually know who the mysterious plate belongs to. It is still our goal to return this plate—full, of course—to someone. We have yet to win that battle!

I know that Ramadan isn’t just about late-night feasting. It’s about cultivating both the personal and collective spiritual discipline of fasting in submission to God’s will. Though our own faith calls us to this discipline as well, I must say, that I appreciate a neighborhood where fasting is a topic of conversation among ten-year-olds, and breaking fast is something to share with loved ones and neighbors.DSC_0242

So to all my Muslim friends and neighbors, thank you, for your generosity. Thank you for showing us, plate by plate, the essence of kareem. And if anyone happens to recognize this plate, let me know and I can fill it full of warm, homemade banana bread or Greek-style spinach pie.

Ramadan Kareem!