One of the things I have loved about writing is getting into conversations with people who don’t have my background but know what it is to live between worlds. Today’s post comes from someone like that. I met Thea online when she began to read Communicating Across Boundaries. Since that time we have had some short but wonderful conversations about living between worlds. Today she takes you into her world of living between. You’ll want to grab a hot drink for this one! Read more about Thea at the end of the post and head over to her blog!
Earlier this fall, I dropped my firstborn child off for her first day of kindergarten. I had been dreading the day since March, feeling it’s cold shadow over her last days of preschool, sensing a little worm of panic squiggling under the surface of long, lazy afternoons, finding a new urgency in my perennial wish that summer would never end. But I was calm that day as I took her to school. I helped her find a hook for her things, gave her a kiss, and walked out without a tear.
It is never easy, I am sure, to send a much beloved child to school for the first time. I share worries that are common to most parents. I want my child to be successful, to be liked, to behave. But at the same time, I have fears that I imagine are more common among immigrants and refugees than white, middle class, suburban moms like me. “What if she thinks she belongs here? How will she know she is different? What if she wants to fit in?’” Anyone who knows my red-haired, left-handed little girl with her imaginary fire angel sisters is probably laughing by now. But bear with me. Being quirky and self-confident at five is no guarantee that one will have the strength of character to make it to adulthood in one piece.
My early childhood was quite different from my daughter’s, but it was magical. More than forty years ago my parents answered a call to follow Jesus in a radical, apostolic way. They joined a brotherhood of like-minded believers, took vows of poverty and obedience, and left their former lives behind. For them, following that call has meant being willing to uproot themselves at a moments notice. It has led them from coast to coast and back again. It meant foregoing (or delaying, in some cases) choices that might have guaranteed material security and stability in favor of opportunities to serve God and neighbor. Eventually it led them into the Orthodox Church, in which my father now serves as a priest.
For me, their calling meant a childhood lived between worlds. While living between worlds can be confusing or alienating, it can also be richer and more fun than sticking to only one. When I was quite small we belonged to a large community, where adults called one another “Brother” and “Sister” and children, though we were far from angels, were never cruel in the ways (as I was later to learn) children in the “real world” often are. We believed in fairies and celebrated the changing of the seasons. We believed in angels and worshiped by candlelight. We were homeschooled, but so were our friends, so a few hours of morning study were followed by long afternoons of unstructured play.
When I was six or seven things began to change drastically. We became Orthodox and the common life ended. I went to public school and my mother went to work. Certainly I felt a sense of loss, and was aware at some level (as children always are) of the stress that such major changes placed upon the adults around me. But for the most part, living through major changes was an asset for me. I went to the first day of third grade never having watched Sesame Street, listened to popular music, or owned a Cabbage Patch Kid (yes, you should be able to guess my age now). I quickly learned to observe, to pick up social cues, to adapt just enough, if not to fit in, then at least not to stick out. These skills served me well through many changes.
When I was a freshman in high school my family moved 3000 miles, from Atlanta to San Francisco, and I left home to complete high school at a nearby women’s monastery. My chameleon-like ability to adapt helped me through college, and again as an adult when I moved back to Atlanta and taught at an inner city school where almost no one looked or talked like me.
Living between worlds meant knowing how to adapt to new circumstances, but it also meant always having a fall-back. Never being able to completely fit in meant never having to commit 100%, never having to fully belong. There was safety in knowing that I had secrets, that there was more to me than met the eye.
My daughter is going to the same elementary school that my husband attended thirty years ago. Her kindergarten teacher is married to one of his favorite high school teachers. The principal, school counselor, and a few of the teachers remember my mother-in-law from her years as a teacher’s assistant. When we toured the school with my daughter’s Pre-K class I showed her where, if she was ever sad or lonely, she could stand at the edge of the playground and look over to the spot where her grandfather lies on the green hillside beyond the schoolyard fence.
This kind of rootedness, this deep sense of belonging to an incidental community based on bloodlines and shared geography rather than an intentional one based on shared principles and beliefs, is new territory for me. It lends a different magic to my daughter’s childhood, and will have its own hidden dangers, its own kinds of safety to bestow.
If you had asked me a year ago what I could contribute to a conversation about identity and living between cultures, I would have been at a loss for what to say. I have done my share of thinking, writing, and soul searching on the topic, but it seems far away to me now, like so much adolescent introspection with very little immediate relevance. I know who I am, where and to Whom I belong, and I have no desire to get sucked back into the vortex of self-reflection. But then, back in April, I had to decide whether or not to register my first baby for Kindergarten. The idea that my choice would become a fundamental building block in someone else’s identity, a chapter in someone else’s life story, written in indelible ink, was terrifying. So many voices within me wanted their say, born of my own varied past. Part of me longs to give my daughter a childhood like my own, colored with starlight, fairy dust, and sweet summer mornings. Then again, I want her to have a chance to make friends with people who do not look or talk like her, to begin the hard lessons of tolerance and respect. After much deliberation I decided that for this child and this family at this moment in time, our local school was the best option, but I am sure I will question that decision many times before the year is over.
Despite my misgivings, I walked away from the school on that August morning at peace. There are still many experiences from my own past that I want to share with my child, and so many questions about who she will become. But when I think back over the path that has led me here, it is as if a strange wind has been blowing through my life, taking me places I never knew I needed to go, teaching me things I couldn’t have guessed I would need to learn. To be sure, I have made choices that have shaped my life, but only as a bird leaning into or away from the wind, not as the wind itself, which blows where it will.
So when I look at my sweet child I know that, while it is my job to guide and care for her the best I can, truly the safest place for my little fledgling is not in an insulated nest of my own imperfect making, but out there, following the wind. And to hear her tell it, fire angels are very good at flying.
Thea Wallace doesn’t have a passport and has never crossed an international border, but has lived in many diverse communities and reached across all kinds of boundaries within her home country. Her latest adventure involves raising her two children in a small Mississippi town. She blogs at www.ariseandeat.com.