Rania – Reflections on Place, Work, and Travel

I walk up the three flights of stairs to our apartment and unlock the door. I step inside and breathe a sigh of gratitude. No matter where you live, you need a home base. This is why the displacement and refugee crisis of our time is so important to care about. We are created for place. What happens to us when place is disrupted, creating fear and insecurity? This is the question trauma experts will be called on to answer for decades.

This one bedroom apartment has quickly become our place and haven. The apartment is on the third floor and has a bedroom, living room, large kitchen, sunroom and balcony. With high ceilings and a chipped marble floor, it is built for a hot, dry climate. It is cooled by a desert cooler, a system of cooling that works best in dry places and is far more economical than air conditioning. The electricity is based on a local and national system that we don’t yet understand. When the local electricity goes off, the national comes on. We’ve only been without electricity a couple of times.

We brought a few touches of home but have also gone to the local bazaar and purchased some household goods. Pictures of our family and friends stand on a large window sill, reminders that movement has a cost, but also surrounding us with love, our grandson claiming his prominent place in the line up.

The work week begins on Sunday and ends on Thursday afternoon. We are reminded at every turn that the culture we have moved to is relational above all. Any question we have is met with a “I can take you!” Or “Let me show you!” Or “Come to our house and my mother will help you.” Coming from Boston, this is a shock! We have a joke in Boston that the reason people don’t use their turn signals is because it’s none of your damn business where they are going! Here? Here it is everyone’s business. We are not alone. We have help at every corner and beyond!

I am reminded of desires today, and the years of longing that have led me here. There are frustrations for sure, but above all, we are so grateful. We are so lucky that we get to do this, to have our world turned inside out and upside down; to be in a place where we need people to explain everything to us; to grow and learn and be changed.

As I finish this week and head into another adventure this weekend, I am reminded of the oft quoted and beloved words of Pico Iyer. Perhaps you too know them and love them:

We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again- to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.

In Rania, I have fallen in love once more.

3 AM in the First Class Lounge

I have never been in a first class lounge before. This hits me as I sit in a chair at three o’clock in the morning at a first class lounge in the Qatar Airport, my head resting on on of those brilliant, semi-circled plane pillows. We are here because of an extra long layover after an extraordinary, though quick, trip to Iraq.

The lounge is nearly empty, but an hour ago people from a multitude of cultures and countries converged on this space. Women in black abayas with bedazzled hijabs loaded plates of food for kids of all ages. Blonde-haired Europeans with skinny jeans and sweatshirts lounged on modern furniture scrolling through smart phones, their faithful links to the world’s they left behind. Tall and short men of varying ages, some eating, some drinking tea or coffee, still others snoring, oblivious to anything but the deep sleep that consumes them.

And then there are the staff, so attentive in their caring for weary travelers, yet so weary themselves.

A large, unavoidable screen gives airline information in vivid white, a reminder that we are only temporary sojourners. Each of us will leave this room, for it is merely a temporary resting place. We will never be fully comfortable here, but it does provide respite for a time.

How like our life on earth! The invisible but unavoidable screen of mortality reminding each of us at that our time on earth is limited.

If we let it, travel ushers us into reflective humility. All these travelers representing individuals, families, countries, cultures, languages, political ideologies, and religious beliefs. All these travelers, and I am but one of the millions that are traveling throughout the world today.

We are so small in the big scheme of things, yet so utterly beloved by our creator, without exception. The person I may despise the most is deeply and completely loved by the same One who loves me. It is beyond my ability to understand yet at three in the morning, it is deeply comforting.

A little girl has fallen asleep nearby. I smile, memories of traveling the world with my own children coming back to me. They would have loved to see the likes of this lounge.

I am so grateful for these moments. In a short time I will be on my way, the humility that travel affords too quickly replaced by my everyday erroneous thinking that I can control my world, replaced by my pride. But I thank God for the moments.

The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment He has scattered broadcast.  We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy.  It is not hard to see why.  The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency.  Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.” C.S. Lewis

I Hate Saying Goodbye

It’s a sunny day in Thessaloniki. The sky is indescribably blue and Mount Olympus is in full view, the snow capping its peak like marshmallow fluff. From far away snow is so pretty!

I got up early, knowing that I didn’t want to be rushed, instead opting for a leisurely coffee and pastries.

We came here four all-too-short days ago. Our son has made his home here and we saw the city through his eyes and his wonderful balance of rest and visiting churches and other sites. Yesterday the city stretched in front of us with a perfect view from a monastery on the hill near the old city walls. A peacock strut around – turquoise beauty with a lot of pride. Other than me, he wasn’t getting any attention from females but it didn’t stop him from parading. Some things are just too pretty for their own good.

During our time here there was rest and coffee and visiting, followed by more rest and coffee and visiting. The pace of Greece is so welcome after Boston, with its unrelenting schedule and cold weather.

Last night we met with a group of our son’s friends, eating foods with all the flavors and drinking sweet Greek wine. Our throats were sore from the laughter and trying to shout our conversations above the noise of two other large groups and musicians singing popular Greek songs. A small opening of space was enough to get some Greek dancing going and my legs ache even as I smile with the recent memory.

But today has come, and with the sunny skies comes a goodbye. Three weeks ago I said goodbye to my mom in New York. Two weeks ago I said goodbye to our son in Los Angeles. One week ago I said goodbye to our daughter and grandson in Chicago. Today it is saying goodbye to our son in Thessaloniki.

I hate saying goodbye. I especially hate saying goodbye to my kids. I hate it. I write words and talk a good talk about all this but when it comes down to the awful truth, saying goodbye hurts the heart more than any of us can possibly describe. We can philosophize, or be practical, or spiritualize the idea of goodbyes, but it doesn’t take away that we are created for relationships, created for family. We are impermanent people created for permanence.

I’d love to offer beautiful words about goodbyes and honoring them, but right now, I think I just need to put it out there: I hate saying goodbye to my kids and those others whom I love.

Yeah – I really hate it.

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

Airports – Spaces Between Goodbye & Hello

Airport Happy Place

I love airports. Whether they are small regional airports in the middle of Pakistan or large, metropolitan mega centers of the world – I love them.

I find that airports are contemplative places. They provide a place of quiet watching in the middle of chaos; they allow me to stare out at nothing in particular without interruption; they offer me cinnamon buns, with gorgeous thick icing and gooey middles.

Today I’m sitting at JFK airport in the Jet Blue terminal. It’s a relatively quiet Thursday morning with few family travelers. As I was settling in for a long layover, I suddenly heard my name paged over the loudspeaker. Because I am who I am, in 30 seconds I had gone through a list of catastrophes. By the end of the list, most of the people I love more than life itself had died.

And then I mentally kicked myself and told myself that God doesn’t give us grace for our imagined tragedies. It’s amazing how quickly the brain can go from slow contemplation to imagination induced funerals to relief. I headed to the Jet Blue “Just Ask” spot, and I “just asked” why they had paged me. It was my license. It must have slipped out as I was walking between gates.

The kindness of strangers always amazes me in airports. Just a small incident of a misplaced license is an example — the anonymous person who found the license and turned it in; the person who paged me; and then the person who met me halfway between gates just to make it easier.

I see other acts of kindness – the person who gave up their seat for an older woman who looked like she needed rest; employees who work day in and day out seeing anonymous people and still smile when they serve you; the mother/daughter duo who stop to help a young mom struggling with a toddler and a baby.

Airports are liminal spaces, spaces between hello and goodbye. They are spaces where little is required and much is anticipated. Airports are bridges between places and the people who travel through them are the bridge-builders. Airports are also non-places and though I love them, most people don’t.

The Terminal, a 2004 Spielberg film, tells the story of an Eastern European man trapped in the same airport where I now sit. He is caught between worlds in “diplomatic limbo” as his fictitious country experiences a coup rendering his visa and passport useless. The country he comes from no longer exists, so he is not allowed to set foot on U.S soil. Instead, he makes his home in the international departure lounge.

The main character (Victor Navorski played by Tom Hanks) is sympathetic and pure. He doesn’t lie or try to take advantage of the situation, instead he gets to know the people in the airport as human beings. He intervenes in what could have been a tragedy and he drives the customs and immigration official, Dixon played by Stanley Tucci, crazy.

I love this film.  I love the pace. I love the characters. But most of all, I love the story. It’s a story of people stuck in the space between who end up opening up to each other and becoming friends.

My friend, Mariuca, says that my life is like The Terminal. I laugh when she says it, because in recent months I’ve done little traveling, but I’m also the only person I know who wouldn’t mind if my life was The Terminal. The idea of befriending airport employees and driving immigration officials crazy sounds incredibly appealing.

But I don’t live in the terminal. I live in real life where this morning I said goodbye to my husband and in a bit I will say hello to my mom. And that’s the thing that every person in this airport has in common, no matter their age or nationality; no matter if they are airport employees or travelers; no matter what their occupations. Every single person is between goodbye and hello. Every single person left wherever they left this morning saying goodbye. It could have been a painful, poignant, or relieved goodbye and it will end with a painful, poignant, or a relieved – perhaps ecstatic – hello.

We’re fellow life-travelers between goodbye and hello. Some of us know to make the moments count, others haven’t seen enough of life to know that moments matter.

Living between worlds in the liminal space of an airport may not be what many would enjoy, but I sit in happy contemplation.

I am content in the terminal, content between goodbye and hello. 

Normalizing Departure

train-2663056_1280

“…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

Culture Shock: When Your Soul Takes Longer to Arrive

culture shock.jpg

First you arrive physically and you are very tired. But only after a while, your soul gets here, too. Because the plane is very fast, but the soul takes longer to arrive.*

On Friday, my youngest son arrived home after two months of travel. He experienced hospitality, adventure, and food across Albania, Greece, Bulgaria, and Istanbul. He arrived physically exhausged but full of the best sort of stories and pictures. There are a lot of moments that transpire between goodbye and hello. 

In 2013, the BBC published a short video of a man from a tribe in the rain forests of the Amazon who had come to New York City to live. His words quoted above accurately describe our global world and remind us that though through plane travel we arrive quickly on the other side of the world, our souls take longer.

We have high expectations for ourselves. We expect to jump right into life, to pick up as though we are unchanged, to tell ourselves “it’s no big deal – I’m back now”. But when our souls are still a world away, we can’t fully connect.

We need time and we need grace.

Three years ago Robynn wrote a wise piece called “How to Give Yourself Grace: Advice to someone returning from a long journey.” As Robynn unpacks what this means, she says this:

You can anticipate some cultural confusion. When you switch a baby from breast-feeding to bottle feeding and then back to breast-feeding often the baby experiences some “nipple confusion”. As earthy as the metaphor might be, I think it describes some of what we feel when we return to our beloved places and then reenter our regular placements. We are confused. Our souls are unsettled. We knew a particular way and then we became used to a different way and now we’re back to the old way, but only temporarily and now we race to what was sort of familiar and yet now not so much. There has to be some cultural confusion….some yanking of our tethers, our leashes. We are whiplashed from culture to culture. You can expect to be out of whack!

 She goes on to say:

Resist the urge to return too quickly. Try not to rush back in. Breathe deeply. Move slowly. Go ahead and do the next thing on your list but don’t hurry. Your poor body has been around the world and back again. Let your soul catch up! Come home slowly.

I think of Robynn’s words as I pray for my son and as I watch him slowly enter, because his soul will enter slowly and he may need some time to breathe.

You can read Robynn’s piece here. I know many of you have been missing Robynn – she has take a break for a bit, and I hope to see her back soon resuming her Friday wisdom. 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21806193

When You Can’t Settle in the Place You Call Home

It just doesn't go away

A couple of years ago, an anonymous letter came to Communicating Across Boundaries. The letter began like this:

It just doesn’t go away….

The writer goes on to speak of an unsettled weariness and dissatisfaction, a boredom with life in one’s passport country. “I’m afraid I may have a chronic case of ennui. Most of the time the symptoms lie dormant but occasionally—when my routines are disturbed, when life is a little off kilter, when friends are traveling, —they flare up, these “feeling(s) of weariness and dissatisfaction: boredom.” 

The letter appeals to readers at Communicating Across Boundaries, asking for their help and advice. “Can you help me?” says the writer. Can you help me with this “…hard to shake thing that lingers inside me–this grief-adrenaline withdrawal-unsettled-restlessness at work in my soul.”

The answers to the letter were kind and thoughtful. Above all – they were wise. 

I’ve included some of those responses below in case there are others who just can’t shake that feeling of not settling in the places we are supposed to call home.

_____________________

“There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone (or some place) dear to us, and one should not attempt to do so.

One must simply hold out and endure it.

At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is also a great comfort.

For to the extent the emptiness truly remains unfilled one remains connected to the
other person through it.

It is wrong to say that God fills the emptiness. God in no way fills it but much more
leaves it precisely unfilled and thus helps us preserve – even in pain – the authentic
relationship.

Further more, the more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the
separation.

But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer as offered by Bettie Addleton.

______________________________

“I can feel this thing she is talking about in my own heart as I read this letter. Sometimes it feels like a heavy, numbing complacency and sometimes like a boiling frustration, or a deep, dark pit of sadness. I call my own by many names: sometimes loss, sometimes darkness, sometimes just an unsettled spirit. I tell myself over and over to “be still”. But usually I accept it as an uncomfortable advantage that I know deep within me that this is not my home and that I long for something more, something so much more fulfilling, so much deeper, so much brighter, so much better, a real and honest home, a place to belong….I think I’ve just come to accept it and allow it to exist. Not let it take over, not let it pull me under (when I can). I just nod at it in the corner, acknowledge that it is there, and then take deep breaths, smile at someone, sometimes let some pressure out with tears, and keep moving forward knowing that one day it will not sit in that corner anymore.Art helps. Beauty helps. Poetry, paintings, sunsets, songs, laughter.” Maia Manchester 

_______________________

To me, this feeling is the result of the accumulation of all the places and people I gave my heart to in my childhood of travel, but which I either can’t see now, or can only visit very occasionally…it is a build-up of losses (even though they were all joys before)–some of which are permanent losses.

Those people have gone or the places have changed, some because of war and destruction. Also there is the simple fact that I cannot be in multiple places at the same time. And so every current happiness has a tinge of sadness. Il y quelque chose qui manque…a little bit of grief that gnaws away at every happiness. I also found it got strongest during the couple of years when I realized I had spent more time now in my “home” country than in any other place, and yet still did not feel at home. I wish I could say it is cured, but it does diminish a bit, as I make more connections here and as I lower my expectations of travel. Finding a friend who has somewhat the same background would be a great help I feel too. And finally, it is one of the reasons I hang onto “the hope of glory” because surely in heaven we will feel completely at home and we’ll be at once with so many loved ones too. – Mauareen

_______________________

The Portuguese word ‘Saudade’ also comes to mind along with ennui. I experience some of those same feelings. There is a longing in me to bring all the pieces of this mobile life tapestry together for a sense of wholeness, NOW, that is actually impossible in our time/space continuum. How often do I feel out of round? Too much for comfort. But the hope that there is more; completeness, integrality, lasting joy beyond the current fabric of our existence is a golden lifeline- an anchor for my soul.

to embrace the story of who I am and where I come from – which may mean digging into it,even in the dark corners and closed boxes

Growing up between US and Kenya and then living in US and Asia, I sometimes think of that dissatisfaction as a curse and sometimes as a gift. The curse is that it sneaks in to the best of times like family reunions with food, stories, laughter, play and unconditional acceptance. That ‘thick sadness’ lurks at the edges that ‘this will not last’ and it will hurt when we go our disparate ways. At other times the curse is to observe situations as a perpetual outsider, finding it difficult just to ‘enter in’. And then there is the sorrow over the losses. Even when the Acceptance target of grief processing has been seemingly been hit, ‘Mission accomplished, sir!’ I find that triggers can throw me back into the grief process. It hurts and saps energy.

The gift for me is knowing that life is full and there is a spectrum of Joy and Pain. No banality exists when I can fully feel. Another is that being discontent can launch me into caring for others. If I can feel it, I can empathize with you. And I am reminded that this world is not my final home- that seems clear as I observe my own brokenness and that of the world around me- if we are broken, there must be something better that we are longing for, else how would we even imagine that?

Some strategies as I look to ‘the best that is to come’ are working towards that better picture to the best of my abilities, to choose love over fear, faith over pride and hope over despair.

For me it is choosing:

  • to be grateful, daily
  • to serve others in their difficulties and challenges
  • to care as well as I can for myself- sleep, exercise, diet, reading, prayer etc. (I think TCK/global nomad types need to take depression seriously!)
  • to get help when I need it – the doctor, counselor, coach, listening friend (I hear my wife saying my theory is better than my practice but I’m improving, I think :)
  • to embrace the story of who I am and where I come from, (which may mean digging into it, even in the dark corners and closed boxes) and to find others who resonate with that story and then feel open to sharing theirs. – Mike Pollock

Readers – what would you add? What helps you? Thank you for sharing!