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

Culture Shock: When Your Soul Takes Longer to Arrive

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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!

A Brief Reflection on Airports and Life


I am bleary-eyed at the Orlando airport. There’s a reason why the infamous “they” tell you to get to the airport early – long security lines extended far into the lounge area. We sighed as we inched our way through, a bright green electronic sign informing us that the process would take 35 to 45 minutes. 

Earlier we dropped off a rental car. As I handed the gentleman the keys, he asked me if I was Parisienne. I smiled “no” pause “but is that a compliment?”  “Oh yes!” He replied. My children laugh at me as the glow of an early morning compliment radiates off my 57 year old non-Parisienne skin. 

And then we trudge our sleepy way to security. Unfortunately, the compliment did nothing for a bad hip, so my ego has been kept in check. 

A busy, international airport is an odd way to end a family funeral. You go from familiar to anonymous; from engaged in conversation to people-watching; from significant to one more passenger in an enormous travel machine.

Yet somehow it works. It’s a bridge between worlds, and I am not expected to communicate on this bridge. I simply cross it. 

Death and funerals are a pause in life’s paragraph. A pause before continuing into more sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. They are an important pause, sometimes changing the rest of the story. Many resolutions based on the brevity of life have happened at the death of a loved one. 

Many would voice sadness over this – the question of why it takes something as permanent as death to make us pause and reflect. I think it is a gift. We are usually far too busy with the ordinary to realize that perhaps change is in order. But then, in the middle of the ordinary, the everyday chores stop so that we can remember a life, and in remembering reflect on our own. 

So in this airport moment between worlds, I stop. I pause. I pray. 

I thank God for the gift of life, and the gift of death – the circle of a broken world on a journey to redemption. 

The moment passes, the flight is ready to board. We are on our way home. 

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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Traveling Mercies

When I was a kid there was a prayer we prayed every time we set out on a trip, which was often. My childhood was marked by travel and transition so you can know that we prayed this prayer frequently. Every trip was prefaced with a prayer that included a little request for “traveling mercies”.

Two weeks ago I was on my way to Thailand. As I buckled my seatbelt, and ensured my seat back was in its upright position and my tray table was closed and locked, my carry-on stowed under the seat in front of me, this prayer came to me. The words, “traveling mercies”, surfaced in my prayer. I smiled at the habituated prayer that had come to me from the faraway places of my mind but then I began to muse about its meaning.

Certainly this is a prayer for safety. It’s a prayer for protection. Travel has its risks. I think it might also be a plea for ease. Heaven knows travel can be rigorous and exhausting.

In the Dallas airport, on my first brief lay over, I met three Bangladeshis in the magazine kiosk who spoke Hindi. I sat next to a Pakistani woman explaining to her husband, left behind and suddenly hungry, how to make chicken curry in the pressure cooker. I watched two little girls playing with each other, in and out and around their daddy’s legs. In Houston across the darkened departure lounge I caught sight of a little girl’s mime show for her parents when she thought no one else was watching. Sitting just across from me two bedraggled parents kept trying to hide their toddler’s pacifier. The dad, with a wink at me, slid it behind his back to his wife, and then quietly explained that they didn’t want him to fall asleep until they were on board. I smiled understandably. The little person was agitated and outspoken about it! He fussed and fretted. He wanted his pacifier. When the dad left to use the restroom, the mom sheepishly smiled at me, pulled it out from her bag and I got another conspiratorial wink. That time I burst out laughing.

A well-wishing text message from a friend, a kind word from a fellow passenger as we went through security, a timely bus to take me to the next terminal, a good cup of coffee, a bird flying through the terminal to the delight of passengers old and young, a pleasant seatmate, earplugs, a kind flight attendant these are all mercies. When a connection is made, luggage is found, your debit card works; when you happen upon mango sticky rice in the airport food court, when you find the bus that promises to take you south to Dolphin Bay, when you manage to sleep some, when there’s someone to meet you with a taxi at the other end—these are all undeserved delights. This is the stuff of traveling mercies.

Today we are embarking on a collective journey. The destination is unknown. We’re being told that we’re heading in one direction, but I for one, don’t trust the man in the cockpit. There aren’t enough seat belts to go around. I’m nervous and more than a little anxious. Not all the passengers understand the situation. There is bickering and battling in the economy seats. Business class and First Class have seemingly inserted their earplugs and put on their eye patches. Those seated in emergency exit rows don’t know what they’re doing, some of them have admitted such but they’re still being asked to sit there. Already I’m feeling nauseous from motion sickness and really we haven’t started moving yet. Turbulence is ahead. It’s going to be a long flight.

I woke up this morning in a dense fog. It was dark outside and I wondered if the sun would shine today. Knowing the trip ahead, I breathed in and out, and prayed for traveling mercies.

Lord, protect us, deliver us, bring us safely to the other side. We ask humbly for traveling mercies. Let us see you at work. Give us eyes to recognize the little gifts.

Help us to bravely stand up for those whose travel documents are in question.

Give us grace to serve our fellow passengers. Help us to be nice to each other. Grant us strength to do all the good we can en route.

When the ride gets turbulent, when oxygen masks dangle in front of us, reassure us of your nearness and help us to breath. Thank you that you travel with us. Thank you that you promise to meet us at baggage claim. Thank you for the hope of our Final Destination.

But until then, we ask for your traveling mercies.

Christ in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Oh Canada

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Today I’m boarding a plane and going home. While the Canada Goose is turning her beak to the south, I’m turning mine to the north. I’m off to Canada!

Canada is where my story started. There’s a warm and weird nostalgia that comes over me when I think about Canada and all things Canadian: Coffee Crisp chocolate bars, Shreddies cereal, Swedish fish, Tim Hortons coffee and donuts, Canadian Tire, London Drugs, Cheez Whiz, Nanaimo bars, Nuts and Bolts, Aero chocolate, homo milk, Beaver Tails, poutine, ordering French fries with a side of gravy, Kraft Dinner, the loonie and the twoonie, the Canadian flag, klicks.

I suppose my attachment to the Great White North is a little suspect. I’ve really only lived 15 of my 46 years there. But Canada served as a pivot place for my childhood. Although we left when I was 8 years old, Canada was where we always went back to. Canada housed my grandparents, most of our aunts and uncles, our cousins. Canada was the place of my parent’s childhoods, their stories, their romance and marriage.

Later, when mom and dad were back from Pakistan, Lowell and I would marry in a tiny church in a small town on the vast Canadian prairies. We honeymooned in the Canadian Rockies between Banff and Lake Louise. Come to think of it, those months leading up to our wedding was really the last time I lived in Canada. We’ve been married 22 years ago. That’s a very long time ago.

Although I self-identify as Canadian, and have a Canadian passport to prove it, I’m quite likely the most unCanadian Canadian you’ll ever meet. My connections are weak at best, based largely on sentiment and maple syrup. I know very little about Canadian history or folklore. Canadian politics still perplex me on occasion. I’m hardly fluent in the Canadian vernacular. My vowels are now too relaxed, my consonants too indistinct, my syllables too lazy. When I talk no one suspects that I’m from north of the 49th parallel.

I know it makes no sense but I suppose this is the crux of the TCK tale. There’s no accounting for how and when the heart feels momentarily at home. The math doesn’t make sense. Only 1/3 of my life has been lived in the True North strong and free. On the other hand I’ve lived 22 years in Pakistan and India. Only nine years have been spent here among the sunflowers in Kansas.

And yet Canada still represents something to my soul that really defies logic. For reasons I can’t explain there’s a part of me that still sighs with relief when I enter her borders. I exhale and relax just a little bit more when I arrive. This time tomorrow morning I’ll be sipping tea at my parent’s dining room table. I’ll take a deep breath and let it out slowly. I’ll set down my foreignness for a bit. I’ll be among my people and somehow that brings me a measure of consolation.

O Canada!

Our home and native land!

True patriot love in all thy sons command.

With glowing hearts we see thee rise,

The True North strong and free!

From far and wide,

O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

God keep our land glorious and free!

O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

O Canada! Where pines and maples grow.

Great prairies spread and lordly rivers flow.

How dear to us thy broad domain,

From East to Western sea.

Thou land of hope for all who toil!

Thou True North, strong and free!

O Canada! Beneath thy shining skies

May stalwart sons, and gentle maidens rise,

To keep thee steadfast through the years

From East to Western sea.

Our own beloved native land!

Our True North, strong and free!

 

Ruler supreme, who hearest humble prayer,

Hold our Dominion in thy loving care;

Help us to find, O God, in thee

A lasting, rich reward,

As waiting for the better Day,

We ever stand on guard.