Like the Seasons….

normalized departure

Like seasons and birthdays, our comings and goings were a normal part of our lives. When we reached adulthood, we would meet others who had never moved and we would be amazed. On the surface, we felt arrogant – “look at us, we’ve been everywhere” was our silent thought that shouted loudly in our attitudes.

But just below the surface, we longed for weekly family dinners and shopping trips with moms or sisters; for fights that were resolved because they had to be; and for tight family units that stuck together through the years.

While we were roaming the globe collecting stories through the stamps on our passports, others were creating homes and building lives. Each choice came with both joys and challenges.

When your identity is semi-rooted in movement, then you face a crisis when you stay put, when you plant roots, when you’re ‘stable.’

And then if we did settle down, we felt the guilt of stability and wondered how our lives had become so predictable and so mundane. We made the mistake of equating stability with stagnancy.

Stability – strong, secure, safe, steady, firm. Those are adjectives with substance. They mean something. They are foundational to living well. Stability can be present in a life of movement or in a life where you are rooted in one place. Stability is not about where you live, it’s about how you live.*

And in all this, the seasons still came and left, and in between we continued to live.  


*from the Guilt of Stability

Quote on photograph from Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey

Normalizing Departure

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“…but we also knew what it was like to feel temporary, to keep your eye on the clock, to normalise the inevitability of departure so completely that you didn’t think about it, even though you always thought about it.”

It was six years ago when my mom told me that from age 6 through age 18 I never slept in the same bed more than three months at a time. I don’t even remember what we were talking about, but I do remember the moment she told me. It was like all the fuzzy fog of self accusation that had enveloped me suddenly changed into clear and complete understanding.

It always felt like it was my fault that I didn’t feel like I belonged. If only I tried harder. If only I reached out more. If only I wasn’t so sensitive.

If only….

But with my mom’s revelation, the “if only” suddenly became a “no wonder!” complete with all the emphasis an exclamation mark can give.

No wonder I always felt temporary.

No wonder I got restless every few months, rearranging furniture, changing pictures on the wall, looking for a new job.

No wonder I thought I could feel my inner scream of rebellion when people around me were unwilling to face change.

Our life as third culture kids had rhythms of movement. You never questioned those rhythms, they were like the seasons of the year, and you don’t question seasons of the year. Instead, you meet them and embrace them. Then, just when you’ve grown tired and have had enough of winter, you see the burst of spring through forsythia and daffodils poking through old, grey snow.

Like the seasons, arrivals and departures were normalized. We came, we left, and in between we lived. Our resilience was amazing but along the way we didn’t always face the grief that had collected, didn’t always realize that there were some coping mechanisms that would need to be confronted, things that prevented us from fully engaging in life and people around us.

Deepak Unnikrishnan, an Abu Dhabi based writer, recently wrote an article called “Abu Dhabi: the city where citizenship is not an option.” Other than airport layovers on the way to Pakistan, I’ve never been to Abu Dhabi, yet it’s been a long time since I read an article that so completely described the third culture kid experience; the normalization of movement that others find so difficult to relate to.

Like me, Deepak grew up in a place that was not his ‘passport’ country. There are no long-term options for citizenship in the United Arab Emirates, and so children like Deepak, who then become adults, know that at some point they will leave. They had to have a reason to stay.

“…at 20, with the help of a loan from my parents, I found myself leaving for the US. I don’t recall having a conversation with anyone about how I felt. My parents, like others of their generation, normalised departure. But they didn’t tell us what to do with the memories, or how to archive them.”

Deepak questions the words that are available to those of us who are trained to leave our homes behind. “Expatriate isn’t right. Neither is migrant. And guest worker just feels cold, almost euphemistic” he says.

As I think about this I realize why I continue to hold on to the identity and importance of the term “third culture kid”. Because that is the identity I believe the author is looking for. It is we who are trained to leave our homes behind. It is we who know we won’t stay, we who know we can’t stay. It is we whose memories matter so deeply, whose memories need to be archived so that we can hold on to pieces of place. It is we who continue to embrace this identity, even as we move into more permanent seasons and places in our lives.

As kids we are involuntary transients; as adults sometimes the easiest path to take is to become voluntary transients, procreating involuntary transients along the way. We continue patterns of normalizing arrivals and departures; understanding the sweetness of arrivals and the bitterness of goodbyes. We are expert packers and planners, holding our arrival and departure manifestos in our hearts and heads.

But sometimes, we need to plant our feet solidly into the soil around us and stay a little longer. Sometimes we need to realize it’s okay to write our names in the land of our passport countries, even as we hold on to archived memories to give us strength.

“For most of us, being raised as foreigners meant our stay in [insert country] was free of permanence. For some, a temporary stay meant a year or two; for others, time dragged on indefinitely, but always, always, the time would come to say goodbye. Our parents may have chosen to remain, but we would leave. We were raised to be different, we were raised knowing we wouldn’t stay, knowing that as soon as we finished school we would leave and probably not come back.” Nina Sichel in Unrooted Childhoods

Where Our Experiences Find Life

My nephew, Tim, and his wife and baby are moving. They have been living in Mexico for the past two years, and their  time has come to an end. 

When they joined the Foreign Service, they knew that theirs would be a life of hellos and goodbyes; that boxes and moving trucks would periodically turn homes back into houses; and that they would ever after categorize their life as a life lived Between Worlds. 

But even though they knew that, living out that reality is different then anticipating it. In a beautiful blog post, my nephew describes the experience of watching their home become a house. You can read it by clicking here

I’ll end with these words taken from the blog post:

Watching the physical symbols of home go into boxes is a melancholy experience. It means we are leaving soon. But we also know that home is not our stuff. 

Home, for our family, is finding love and belonging in all of the new places that we are blessed to experience.*

*You can follow Tim and Kim’s journey at Far and Away, With T, K, & J

Moving Manifesto

Note: This essay is from Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging available here.

April is the time when it hits many people that their reality is changing and a move is inevitable. This post is dedicated to all those who will be moving in the next 3 months.

  • Be ruthless – check
  • Don’t go into memory mode – check
  • Keep on telling yourself  “it’s just a ___________(fill in the blank), I don’t need to feel that attached to it”- check
  • Bite back your tears – check
  • Remind yourself that your life is exciting, that others should be as lucky as you – check
  • Try not to listen when friends begin talking about an event that is coming in the future, after you’re gone – check
  • Tell your kids numerous times that they will get to have a ‘new room’ and ‘new friends’ where you’re going “Isn’t that so exciting?!” – check

This is the Moving Manifesto. As days fill with parties and packing, numerous goodbyes, short tempers, unexpected tears in public and private places, we who have traveled this road many times must remember this manifesto. We are comrades of sorts, travelling a path not everybody travels, loyal to each other and to change, unable to explain to people that though we cry now, we really wouldn’t trade our lives. But we need to express those deep feelings of loss and grief in order to do what we do, and do it well.

We go into auto-mode once it becomes inevitable that the packing must be done. Until then, there is a part of us that pretends life will always be as it is ‘right now’. Occasionally doing things like purchasing items for our current reality, almost as a talisman against what’s coming, or a nesting despite knowing that very soon the nest will be knocked from the tree and it will take a while to rebuild. We are well aware that some of our current relationships will survive the move, and others won’t – everybody doesn’t have the capacity to withstand distance and change in friendship. We won’t hold that against people in any way, but part of the manifesto is that we are allowed to feel sad.

We are well aware that some of our current relationships will survive the move, and others won’t – everybody doesn’t have the capacity to withstand distance and change in friendship.

And all too soon, that final party will come. We will be the life of that party as we retell stories with our old friends. We won’t admit to ourselves that they were not part of our lives 3, 4, or 5 years before – because that would give in to the idea that it’s ok that we are moving, and right now it’s not ok.

As the day arrives, the manifesto becomes more important for part of this process is frustration with our current situation. If we can be mad at ‘right now’ our future looks much easier and brighter. So everything that can possibly go wrong often does just that. The moving truck doesn’t have a permit, the moving people break your favorite clock, your best friend has an emergency and is not there to help, your other friends show up like Jobs friends, telling you everything you’re doing wrong, and your kids? They realize this is a reality, suddenly recognizing they are displaced people, and the tears are unstoppable. Hours later, final goodbyes are said with sinking a feeling in your chest, and a catch in your voice. As you drive away – you don’t look back. You fear you will, like Lot’s wife in the Biblical account, turn to stone and you don’t want that.

Despite this, you survive.

Two days and hours of jet lag later you’re in your new location, figuring out how to make it a home. It all feels like a whirlwind and dream – neighbors or other expatriates have looked curiously at your family, trying to assess your kids ages, and one conversation has already felt promising.

Time to bring out “Settling and Surviving: The Arrival Manifesto”.

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A Life Overseas – To the One Who is Left Behind

Hi Readers! I was at A Life Overseas yesterday writing to those who are left behind. You may have already seen a first version of this post a couple of years ago, but if not I would love it if you joined me!

Airport Check-in

“You can kiss your family and friends good-bye and put miles between you, but at the same time you carry them with you in your heart, your mind, your stomach, because you do not just live in a world but a world lives in you.”
― Frederick Buechner

I watched with a sinking heart as my son walked through security and down the hallway to his gate. He was leaving from Logan International Airport in Boston, Massachusetts for a gap semester in Oxford, England.

This was my youngest, my baby. The entire process of getting him ready and off was an event. I have said goodbye to many before — other family members, dear friends, other children — it was never easy, but this one felt different. It was the end of an era: An era of parenting that was finishing, a new stage beginning.

My husband and I had reversed the roles we had for so long; the roles where we were the ones leaving. Now it was our children and we were the ones left behind.

It’s always the same. I stand at the airport or in the driveway and the word ‘grief’ feels too shallow for what I feel, all the emotions that flow through my heart and mind. I watch as my life changes in slow motion as the people I love drive away or go through airport security.

“You sob like you will never stop. There is no one to hold you. There is no one to offer tangible, concrete comfort. Slowly the sobs swallow you up. You begin to feel such relief, the relief that comes only from a cry so deep you can’t explain it. And somehow you know that God is there.”*

I know with each parting, that life will never be the same and I’m never quite sure I will be able to handle it. I’m never sure whether this time might be the time where I become undone, where I can no longer pick up the pieces and move forward accepting that those I love are gone. But each time I do. Each time I survive, and I smile and laugh again, and though it hurts, somehow it’s okay. 

So this piece is for the one who is left behind.

I don’t know your exact situation, but I surely know this ‘deeper than grief’ feeling, I know what it is to leave, but I also know what it is to be left behind. Here are some thoughts for those who are left behind:

Read the rest at A Life Overseas.

A Short Correspondence on the Issue of Feeling Trapped

Dear Robynn,

I enjoyed your “Friday’s with Robynn” post (A Hidden Pearl. January 29,2016). It really resonated with me, so thank you for posting it. It was very thought provoking for me.

Earlier this year I experienced a very similar feeling to the one you had having returned from Thailand. My friends and I arrived back from India on January 5th. But my first day of work felt so meaningless. I sat behind my desk and stared at my computer thinking, “who care’s about organizing this stuff….!?!” It felt so pointless and so mundane. And it took me a long time to get back into the swing of things and be motivated again.

It brings back fears I have of being trapped and not being able to move and travel or something. But at the same time I wonder what is it that I hope to find overseas that I cannot find here? Being in India this Christmas was fantastic, but it showed me that even if I was to move back it would not be the same as all the memories I cherish and the experiences I wish to recreate there. As a TCK am I cursed to always be discontent where I am living? Am I always going to be trying to re-establish what I lost? It scares me.

I found that book you lent me very challenging; The Wisdom of Stability, by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. I love the idea of building that strong community with the people around me and knowing a place and its people intimately, but putting down roots and making that decision that this is where I will live and work and help to build the Lord’s kingdom is terrifying.

Thinking of the Pearl of Great Price is comforting in the midst of all this going on in my head and in my heart. Jesus is here in America just as much as He is in India and Pakistan or anywhere else for that matter. I feel a level of guilt for not allowing Jesus to be my stability and the center of my affection and the source of my contentment. I need to move away from this idea that I will find peace in any country of this world and move toward knowing I will find peace in the One who created this world.

I think its high time I started to search for this Pearl! And like you said, that hunt for Him will never disappoint!

Dear Young Third Culture Adult,

Thank you again for reading what I write! And thanks for so honestly interacting with it too. I love your heart.

I can so relate to the fears you’ve articulated. I still fear being stuck more than anything. Sometimes when I think about the decision we made to stay here in Kansas I feel a sense of panic begin to creep up from my toes. The idea that we are trapped here, in this house, in this city, in this country freaks me out. I have to constantly present my heart to Jesus asking for daily grace and new mercies.

I think I probably told you this story already…but when my husband Lowell and I decided to buy the little blue house on Colorado Street I resisted. I was anxious to move out of the trailer court only because I really wanted a basement here in Tornado Town. But the idea of BUYING felt so permanent and so forever and so stocks and barrels like. I felt claustrophobic. It stirred up anxiety in me. After we had put our signature on hundreds of papers, initialed countless more and signed our souls over to the bank Lowell and I went out for lunch. Most couples, I imagine, celebrate the purchase of their first home. For me it was a bittersweet time. I cried, wet, salty tears. I’ll never forget Lowell’s response. He put his hand across the table and gently took up my shaky hand. He looked me in the eyes and said what I longed to hear. This doesn’t mean anything. We are not stuck here. If Jesus calls us to Mongolia tomorrow we’ll sell the house. This is not a big deal. There was such reassurance in those words. I felt such relief.

You are not trapped. You are not stuck. I think the enemy of our souls piggybacks on this issue for the Adult TCK. He wants you to think you are stuck. He wants you to feel that a life in your passport country is a purposeless life. Whatever he can do to undermine your sense of worth and calling and purpose He will do. He comes to steal and kill and destroy. Jesus comes to give us life abundant—“a rich and satisfying life!” (John 10:10)

Returning from Thailand in January was difficult at first. But then out of the blue I started reading a book about prayer. It struck me that our purpose is sure in Christ. We are here for the Kingdom of God. We are here for His Glory. We are here to make Jesus famous. Those things have not changed—no matter where we live. But our enemy likes to erode our sense of who we are. He likes to confuse. He steals our purpose. He makes us feel like we have nothing to offer, that we are meant to live somewhere else. It’s the same argument he used in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve. The enemy tries to tell us that God is cheating us, that God knows we thrive somewhere else but he’s stuck us here forever to rot away.

It’s changed the way I’m praying. I’m now asking God to protect my sense of purpose. I’m asking him to give me a divine satisfaction with the space he has for me. I’m asking for contentment and joy. And then I’m asking for protection over that satisfaction, over that contentment, over that sense of purpose. Understanding my sense of purpose as something the enemy is opposed to is a new thought for me but I’m trying this out and seeing Jesus victorious in it. To be honest, and this is surprising me even as I write it, I haven’t thought much about my purpose for the last couple of months since I started to pray that way. I think Jesus really is protecting that….declaring it off limits to the enemy of my soul who has tortured me there for so very many years.

Resist the guilt my friend. You wrote, “I feel a level of guilt for not allowing Jesus to be my stability and the center of my affection and the source of my contentment.”  What might feel like guilt is really an invitation. Jesus is inviting you into deeper places of stability and affection and contentment. He longs for you to find those things in him…

We are so in this together. I wish I could tell you that these things go away. I’m afraid this is your opportunity to find Jesus faithful for many years to come. This is your place of need. This is your thorn in the flesh. But I can also say with great rigor that Jesus WILL BE faithful at every turn. I’ve battled these things over and over again. I can see how Jesus has used this in my story to push me deeper into Who He Is! My faith has grown. I’ve learned that in this suffering He has been kind to me.

 

Sacred Mobility

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Researchers Jeffrey Keuss and Rob Willett describe the TCK experience from a theological perspective, using the phrase “sacredly mobile.” When seen in this light, they describe the experience of the sacredly mobile adolescent as a journey in following God’s vocational call. More importantly, the sacredly mobile adolescent reminds the rest of the Christian community that our identity and vocation in Christ are not physically located in a “home” but can be anywhere in the world.”*

I read the quote above two years ago. For two years I have mulled over and thought about sacred mobility. Mobility has been a part of my life from birth. At three months old, I was diapered and swaddled and left New York Harbor in the arms of my mom. I spent the next six weeks, six weeks that I would never remember, on a massive ship in a sea so big that you could not see land. This mobility continued throughout my childhood, living in different houses in the southern part of Pakistan and going back and forth between boarding school and home.

So I knew mobility – but what about sacred mobility? 

From my faith perspective there are a number of examples of sacred mobility.

The examples begin in Genesis and are woven through both Old and New Testaments. Consider Abraham who was called to leave everything and move to a new land, given promises that took years to fulfill; some never fulfilled in his lifetime. Then there is Jacob who ended up fleeing home after stealing the birthright of his brother. His son Joseph, whose brothers, jealous of his favored status, sold him into slavery in Egypt. There’s Ruth, who left home and traveled with her mother-in-law, speaking words made famous throughout generations for their love and commitment. Words that are still spoken at weddings today “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.” 

There is the Jewish diaspora in Babylon, where the prophet Daniel became a trusted friend of the king. Those examples are a few of many.

Sacred mobility. What does it mean? In an increasingly mobile world, it feels like an important concept to understand. Can we see the movement of people as something sacred? Something that God has continually used for good? Can I see my own movement, my own going from place to place as sacred?

Sacred mobility – what does it mean for the immigrant? What does it mean for the migrant worker? What does it mean for the refugee? What does it mean for the expat? What does it mean for the TCK?

And is there a downside to describing the TCK experience in these terms? While I agree that the sacredly mobile adolescent reminds us that “our identity and vocation in Christ are not physically located in a “home” but can be anywhere in the world,” is it too much of a burden to place on them? Can a vocational call be imposed on a child? 

I’m not sure about the burden piece – I’m not sure about the vocational call for a child, but I can certainly say that at some point in my TCK journey, when I was quite young, I knew that God was using ‘place’ in my story. That he uses ‘place’ in all of our stories. This theme continued on through my adult years, as long as I was overseas. It came as a shock to realize that I could believe in sacred mobility when I was overseas, but had a difficult time when that mobility meant I was back in my passport country.

I’m pondering these things as I sit in a hotel in Idaho. I’ve been traveling for a work job and the people I am working with have welcomed me with their hearts. So has the wide, open land and clear blue sky. I’ve had little time for contemplative thought, but when I woke up today, in a hotel room far from home, I began thinking once again about this idea of sacred mobility.

I still have a lot to think about when it comes to this concept. Can I believe for the refugee who has lost everything, that somehow their journey is sacred in the redemptive story that God is writing? It’s a big ask.

But this I do know: As humans, we are tethered to earth with hearts made for eternity. When we acknowledge God’s loving orchestration of our journey, our mobility does indeed become sacred. And sometimes that takes a lifetime.