On Longing

Longing. What is it? How would you describe this word? Not the dictionary definition, but your own heart definition?

A couple of weeks ago I asked folks how they would define “longing” on the Communicating Across Boundaries Facebook page. Your responses did not disappoint. The thing that made them so significant to me is that I know some of the stories behind these responses. I know the ones with chronic illness who fight against pain and don’t complain, longing for a day when that pain may go. I know the ones who have lost a son or daughter and carry that cruel act against the natural order of life in their hearts. I know the ones who have said too many goodbyes, the ones who have experienced significant loss of place and people. So as you read these, know that they come from hearts and lives of those who have suffered but continue to live. And to you who read this, may you feel hope in our shared experiences of longing.

The ache that lives somewhere between the fossa jugularis sternalis and the solar plexus. It both hurts and comforts – like Chopin’s Nocturnes (see below). It needs no solving – as it cannot be “fixed” from the outside. Only the soul can move things in such a way that longing gets released – either into sadness or into action. – Eva Laszlo-Herbert

I am reading a great book right now, Pilgrimage of a Soul: Contemplative Spirituality for the Active Life by Phileena Heuertz. She has an entire chapter titled “Longing” and here is one of the ways she describes it: “Longings are like growing pains in that their origins can be difficult to trace, and yet they give indication of something deep and profound, something immediately true of us. In that respect, noting our longings and looking more deeply into them can function as a sort of ‘thin space’, in which God pierces our desires and then redeems them with a more devout understanding for how we can live in relationship to God, one another and all creation”. – Dana Miller Baker

At times it feels like a dull ache and at times it feels like a stab in the gut. It is a soul hunger that is ever present. It is both hope and despair. – Joyce Lind Terres

Longing is feeling the distance between where you are and where you want to be – a place, a time, a person, a community, a stage of life, a depth of relationship, or even a version of yourself. – Tanya Crossman

A feeling of being distant…but yearning to be close to something or someone that makes you feel like your most authentic, truly alive, living your purpose self. – April

At the moment I would describe it as an unquenchable ache in the very fibre of my being that sucks the joy out of life. I find it hard to pinpoint where longing ends and grief begins as longing is such a large part of grief. It physically hurts to think about how much Im longing for five more minutes with my mum. – Jo Hoyle

Yearning can be animated or subdued. I sense ‘longing’ as something that might be initially inexplicable because it is “subconscious” in nature, and under the radar of our overly expressed emotions. – Brooke Mackie-Ketcham

A yearning…perhaps for something or someone lost to you, or for something you are working to accomplish. – Betsy Merrill

It’s a reaching with every fiber of your being… – Laurinda McLean

A deep desire for something someplace or someone that doesn’t go away. It is always there consciously, and or sub-consciously. The desire is more than just in your head, it’s in your soul and deep in your bones. To put it in the words of the Psalms, it’s in your innermost being. – Susan Haglund

Missing something so badly it hurts inside. – Laura Keenan

SaudadeLinda Janssen & Annelies Kanis

What do they mean by Saudade? I’ve written a lot about this word, as have others who have lived mobile lives. It’s a Portuguese word that originated in the 13th century by Portuguese diaspora who longed for the places and people they had left behind. 

The famous saudade of the Portuguese is a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness.


A. F. G. Bell In Portugal of 1912

I’m so grateful to those of you who shared these soul-deep responses. What about those who are reading? How would you define longing? Please share through the comments, and thank you – as always – for the gift that you give in reading and being a part of this online space. I will never take it for granted.

A Life Overseas – Capable of Complexity

I’m at A Life Overseas talking about needing to be capable of complexity when we talk about the TCK experience!

I loved growing up overseas. I loved that I knew how to traverse the globe at a young age, that I grew up on curry and hot pakoras, that I could see some of the highest mountains in the world from the grounds of my boarding school. I loved the colorful stamps in my passport – the story of my life in a legal document; the feel of excitement when a plane took off; the visceral sense of home when I was surrounded by palm trees and minarets echoing a mournful call to prayer. I loved it.

And…..

Ah! That word “and”! That freeing, amazing change agent! And it was also hard. I struggled with belonging, with connecting to place. I experienced long nights where tears of homesickness and grief were shed, with only God and a bunk bed as witnesses. I sat uncountable times in rooms full of people enveloped in a bubble of longing, with the words from Ijeoma echoing through my brain: “too foreign for here, too foreign for there – never enough for both”.

It takes many missionary kids years to accept that their experience was a complicated, beautiful package of good and hard. Owning the hard feels like a betrayal. And might I say, there is nothing that makes an MK/TCK bristle like a condescending adult looking at you and automatically saying “Wow – that must have been really hard. You must be glad to be back in [insert country].” I remember standing up as straight as my five foot three frame could make me and saying, with daggers in my voice and eyes, “I loved my childhood. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.” My voice said “Just try me, lady, and I’ll throw that macaroni casserole in your condescending face!”

Okay – that’s harsh. But I was a teenager, and to be told what my life must be was simply unbearable.

For years, all I could do was claim the positive. I was like the Joel Osteen Missionary Kid, except that my teeth weren’t as bright and shiny as his. My childhood was perfect, thank you very much, and don’t even start with the negative.

The problem is that of course, it wasn’t. There was the good and there was the hard. Trying to be fair to both those things felt like an impossibility, so I stuck with the good.

Here’s the thing: When we talk about the MK/TCK experience we have got to be capable of complexityI’ll say that again: we have to be capable of complexity. As Tanya Crossman points out so well in her book Misunderstood, the third culture kid narrative is a perspective and not a one-size-fits-all single story. Each TCK story contains things that are deeply painful and other things that are incredibly unique and joy-filled.

I recently read a book called All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir by Nicole Chung. Though born of a Korean family, Nicole was adopted as a baby by a white family. The book is her story of coming to terms with her adoption and ultimately finding her birth family. But it’s much more than that. It’s a story about belonging, about the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of our reality, about the stories that families tell to make sense of their family narrative. At one point, the author says this:

Family lore given to us as children has such hold over us, such staying power. It can form the bedrock of another kind of faith, one to rival any religion, informing our beliefs about ourselves, and our families, and our place in the world. When tiny, traitorous doubts arose, when I felt lost or alone or confused about all the things I couldn’t know, I told myself that something as noble as my birth parents’ sacrifice demanded my trust. My loyalty.*

Though my circumstances were not those of an adoptee, this paragraph made a deep impact on me when I read it. How many of us as third culture kids, as missionary kids, had our own family lore that we believed? How many of us believed that we must trust our parents’ sacrifice, and wrongly believed that we must not let them, or anyone else, know when things were hard?

In my own journey I have found that the things that I found difficult were also difficult for my parents. I have come to know more fully some of the stories that I only knew partially. I have come to realize that saying something is hard does not mean that it was not good.

Read the rest at A Life Overseas by clicking here.

Born to Belong

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“When you’ve spent your whole life as a cultural chameleon, you end up not knowing what color you were when you started, who you might have been had you been from someplace, what it feels like to belong fully to a people, a tribe, a neighborhood, a city.” from Rachel Hicks in “To My Adult TCK Self: I See You”

In The Weight of Glory, in a chapter based on a lecture called “The Inner Ring”, C.S. Lewis takes a profound look at belonging, specifically at our desire to belong.

“I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.”(Lewis)

The Inner Ring is that elusive place of belonging that is just beyond our reach, just past our grasp. Because once we have reached that inner ring and we begin to settle and think we’ve finally found a place to belong, we realize there is a ring beyond that —and once we’ve gotten to that ring, there’s a ring beyond that still. It is a never-ending quest.

I write about this in Between Worlds, but just writing about something doesn’t take it away. This struggle to belong is human, hard, and never-ending.

We are born to belong. 

A number of years ago, my husband was dropping off my son at a birthday party. Another kid from the class was in the car as he and my son had worked on a class project that morning. When my husband made the plan to drive him home, it made sense that he would combine the trips. We assumed that the birthday party would just have a couple of kids at it. When they arrived at the house where the birthday party was being held, a huge crowd of boys descended on the car welcoming our son. In fact, it appeared the entire class had been invited except for the boy in our car. The boy was crushed. We unwittingly participated in a kid realizing he had been left out, realizing he was not invited to that particular inner ring. It was completely accidental, but it still happened.

If we’re honest we will admit that we all know what it feels like. The stomach-knotting knowledge that we weren’t invited, that we don’t belong. Our first memories of being left out can be as simple, yet painful, as not being invited to a birthday party or as complicated as becoming a part of a blended family, where suddenly we realize the family we thought we belonged to no longer exists. The desire to belong and the feelings that arise when we realize we don’t are part of the human dilemma.

In elementary school that inner ring and quest to belong is the group of girls that excludes us. They are a part of Something Special and we don’t belong. It’s that group in middle school that get together every Friday night and we’re not invited, that group in high school that bears the name and reputation ‘cool’ and no matter how hard we try, we do not know cool. Though we would like it to stop there, it often continues. It’s college, then young adulthood, then work and getting into that inner, secure, exclusive place. It’s church and those people who are in that inner circle, the circle that seems so godly and confident, the one that we wish we belonged to. And yet when we get close, there’s something beyond that circle, just out of our grasp.

We constantly look to that place of belonging, the inner ring that seems so secure, that tells us we have ‘arrived, yet it continually eludes us.

Third culture kids can find this particularly difficult as they straddle many worlds and places. Each place has its own inner ring, each group its own rules. We don’t belong to our passport countries; nor do we fully belong to those other countries where we leave pieces of our lives. Keeping parts of ourselves hidden becomes a necessity because explaining is too difficult.

And yet, it is such a gift. To be able to know what it is to be other in our world of massive displacement is nothing less than a gift. A strange gift perhaps, but a gift nonetheless. The only way to break this cycle of the inner ring is to embrace the gift of not belonging. This echoes Lewis’ response to the “Inner Ring” dilemma. “The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it.” If we break this cycle, we may still find ourselves on the outside, but it will no longer be a burden, we will no longer wear ourselves out by trying so hard to make it inside. Instead we will find a place, sometimes in the most unlikely of circles.

I have slowly come to this place. I don’t even really know when I first realized that I was no longer striving to be part of the inner ring and I wish it had not taken so long. Somehow the quest to belong, that burden on my back since boarding school days of popular groups and cliques, has slowly but steadily been broken. In some mysterious and completely inexplicable way, I belong.

To be sure there are days when I find myself wandering back to the place of inner rings and the quest to belong. But as I begin to try to worm my way into those rings, something always stops me. I remember what it was to strive so hard that I lost my way. I remember that knowing what it is to not belong brings understanding and eyes to see the one at the edges, the one on the margins who sits in the shadows, aching to belong. A voice inside reminds me that my identity is in something so much bigger and greater than any inner ring. It’s in the knowledge that I am loved by God, created to reflect his glory until all inner rings have faded and time stretches into eternity. 

Belonging….doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are. – Brené Brown in Daring Greatly

Thinking of a graduation gift for TCKs? Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey may be a good option! Worlds Apart v2

On Being Local – A Guest Post

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I’m delighted to welcome Michael Pollock to my blog today! Michael is a fellow ATCK, but he’s also a friend and someone who “gets” this journey. Read more about Michael at the end of the post.  

ON BEING LOCAL

I was fascinated by Taiye Selassi’s Ted talk, “Don’t ask me where I’m from, ask me where I’m local”, which, if you’ve seen it, isn’t really about belligerence over a question of origin, as many commenters seemed to think. Taiye spoke eloquently and passionately about the challenge of highly mobile people to nail down the truth of our origins and belonging; in a sense, the places we own and that own us back.

Identity and belonging is not a simple or straightforward issue if you have moved multiple times throughout your life.  The issues are layered in complexity if those moves were also cross cultural as well as geographic. My own back-story includes 7
different towns/cities and 4 states in the US, a mission station in Kenya and the city of Tianjin in China. That’s not counting places I lived and invested for less than a year. And my story is simple compared to many.

Identity and belonging is not simple

Military, diplomatic, missionary and international NGO, education and business families all understand this well. Our ‘place’ memories are mosaics; the ‘people’ we belong to are scattered, though often inter-connected; and various possessions are strewn along our trail of travel the way American pioneers dumped European furniture to lighten their wagons. Personally, I still wonder who now rides my green Giant mountain bike that I left behind in Tianjin.

Taiye thinks being ‘from’ a country, which is a political idea, doesn’t make sense as the lines are arbitrary and can change.  She raised the point of politics and origin/belonging when she suggested that the question “Where are you from?” can also have overtones of power.  Being ‘from’ Germany, Britain, Japan and the US connote more power, while ‘from’ Brazil, Philippines, Liberia, connotes less power and some countries like China and Russia are more ambiguous. I think there is also a ‘social currency’ factor in which some places are more exotic and recognizable and some simply unknown to the person asking.  To an American, being from Thailand rather than Vietnam or Equatorial Guinea will have a whole set of different images and assumptions.  When your ‘from’ includes a list, how do you know where to start? (If you can’t place EG on a map, that helps prove my point.)

Taiye spoke of being ‘multi-local’ and gave three categories to help determine where that might be.

  1. First is rituals: Where do you prepare meals and eat, say your prayers, visit regularly, do your work?  Those are key routines of our lives.
  2. Second is relationships: Where are you currently connected to people in a regular and consistent way, who do you connect with weekly, where do you meet people regularly?
  3. The third category asks what restrictions you have: What keeps you from being in a certain place over another, such as passports, and what keeps you from feeling part of a community such as racism or mistrust of outsiders.

The three question grid helps determine where you are local and whether you are multi-local, as increasingly many people are.

So when our group of 15 third culture kids (TCKs) and adult TCKs (ATCKs) gathered in early March on the shore of Lake Michigan for a retreat, I asked them to share where they were local.
To warm things up, I shared how I had just come from a funeral service in a community in New Jersey, US, that I had not been in for 40 years. And yet I met person after person who had been part of my childhood there and who welcomed me and shared memories of my family and me. I felt a deep warmth, but do not have regular relationships or ongoing rituals there, so by Taiye’s equation, nice, but doesn’t count.

I asked them to share where they were local.

As our group began to share, an interesting thing happened, people spoke of cities and villages in China, Tanzania, Turkey, Jordan, Uganda, Bolivia, Nigeria and then they began to speak of houses. ‘ My grandmother’s house in Minnesota’ said one, and many agreed. ‘The guest house in Nairobi’ said another and stories were passed around by those who were familiar with its antiquated colonial regimen.

Encouraged, someone went further, more compact, ‘I feel local in the car, on the road between Colorado and Ohio’ and eyes lit up around the table. I laughed because an Australian mom in Wuhan, China had once told me that her children told her the only thing she must not sell, EVER, was their old Volvo with the leather seats. Never. It was the only consistent item in their Australian memory vault.

Then an admission, “I feel local and comfortable around certain pieces of furniture, because I used to have a strong link to my grandparent’s house, but they moved…I love their couch!” And a question, “Does anyone else feel this way?” And yes, there were many heads nodding and even some eyes glistening.

The turns came to my daughter, the youngest of the group, who shyly listed a couple of places on her storyline and then paused. “I also feel local in airports.  Any airport, really.”

Boom. “YES” went up around the table in agreement and laughter, and more stories.

We had left the thoughtful three R’s from Taiye behind, it seemed. What could a car, an old couch, and airports have to do with our rituals, relationships and restrictions?

Much, it seems. If I am in motion between stable points, I might feel multi-local, yes? But what if my stable points are not stable at all. What if my schoolmates from childhood all leave for various points of the compass? What if the community I grew up in is bombed or burned out or no one I know lives there and so it no longer exists as a welcoming lighthouse? What happens when that ‘one dependable summer visit house’ with all those treasured memories is sold? It seems that some global nomads struggle feeling local at all. Why is that?

Where are our regular relationships, our connections? All over the map, and still in motion. It might depend on the week, on the season. We track them with social media and when they disappear for a while, we look in familiar places for them to resurface.  We load into the car with the members of our tribe that we can gather and we stop in and visit the ones we can reasonably reach on the way to and from our destination.

Where do we hold our rituals? We try to carry them with us but we also recreate them as needed.  We find the old couch in our grandparents’ new house and snuggle in for cocoa and movies.  We run our fingers over the antique Chinese cabinet or the Masai stool and say our prayers with old friends.

And our restrictions?  Perhaps we find the most freedom in airports, those interstitial worlds where people are coming from everywhere to anywhere and our own possibilities are only held back by the encryption on our e-ticket. We might know that we can’t get to all of those familiar places and warm relationships because of limits in time, money and visas but we are Just. This. Close. Right through that gate.

So we might envy Taiye, just a little, with three places where her rituals, relationships and restrictions hold her in their warmth and familiarity.

And many of us continue to work to build our localness where we are, with what we have, and deep down, we long with all our heart and soul to be truly local somewhere.

Michael Pollock is  the founding director of Daraja, a TCK care and development initiative. He is a certified teacher and coach and holds a Masters in Education from Loyola University.  The founding Head of Cambridge School in Baltimore, he also spent nine years in China as school principal and founder of Odyssey, a TCK leadership formation organization. He and his wife raised three TCKs in China and returned to the US in 2012. They currently call Muskegon, MI ‘home’.


www.daraja.us 
www.facebook.com/darajatck

My Heart Bends East 


It’s early morning in the Netherlands. I have just left The Hague and with it, a rich time of friendship and learning. 

We are on a train headed to Schiphol Airport. Our family and friends in the United States are still in deep sleep. Our friends in the East have been wide awake for several hours. 

I sit and gaze out the window at a green and serene landscape. I watch an early morning sun rising in the sky on my far right. I smile at my elementary school learning as I realize that I know we are heading north-east because of the many times in my childhood where I heard the phrase “the sun rises in the east and sets in the west”. 

Always my heart bends toward the east; toward bright sun and color, toward lands far from the west and ideas even farther. My heart bends east where time is more flexible and silohuettes of palm trees are etched on my memory. It bends toward the east, where the sun rises and daylight comes sooner. 

My heart bends east, where all my “firsts” took place. First steps, first tooth, first kiss, first heart break. It is no wonder then that my faith too now bends toward the east, toward the Church Fathers who lived far from the west; toward the early church and sustaining scriptures; toward rich colors on light-reflected icons. 

Today I will head west, where winter is still present and my body takes time to adjust. I will head west because that is where my heart now lives, where there are parents, friends, jobs, and children; where two cats await my arrival with eager expectation – though they don’t yet know it. I head west to continue creating meaningful work and continuing faith. 

My heart bends east, so when I arrive, I will remember to breathe, remember to take some time, remember to give thanks.

And I will remember that even when my heart bends east, I can still live and live west. 

Readers! Remember you can buy Passages Through Pakistan and proceeds go toward refugees! 

On Belonging


Recently I watched a group of younger colleagues. They seemed so at home with each other, so comfortable.  Like pieces in a puzzle, they all fit. There was without doubt some diversity among them, but they spoke the same language, had the same Masters of Public Health (MPH) after their names, had gone to similar colleges, and knew the same vernacular.

I sat in the background, observing.  I found myself in the place I’ve been so many times — not belonging. From my education to my background to my age, I was different. I was other. 

If we are honest, we have all experienced this — though some substantially more than others. That sense of being other, of yearning to belong.

It is this that has led me to really think about how I would live if I truly believed in my heart that I am loved by God as much as my intellect and faith tell me I am loved. How do we live when we are fully loved? How would I live if I truly felt I belonged?

And I know the answer. Because there are times when I feel a sense of belonging that is so strong it drowns out any other feelings. I know what it is to belong. 

This weekend I will be at a reunion. It’s sort of like a family reunion, but only a few are blood relatives or relatives by marriage. It’s sort of like a school reunion, though many parents are also invited. It’s a reunion of place and people. It’s a reunion where, in a myriad of ways, I belong.

I don’t have to explain early separation from parents or boarding school. I’m never asked at this reunion if boarding school was difficult – because we all get it. We all knew that it was difficult — and it was wonderful. I don’t have to defend a country that is always in the watchful eye of a military drone and on a terrorist watch list, because I’m with people that have a three dimensional view of the country of Pakistan.

I get into conversations on how faith is hard and a long journey, and my words are met with nods and tears of understanding. I am with people that love curry and chapatis as much as I do, and we reminisce with our tongues burning just with the thought of it.

We come from a line of people that shared text books, clothes, dolls, and teachers. We speak the same language, we know the same stories.

For a short time, like pieces in a puzzle, we will fit. We will belong, and it will be glorious.

And I will remember what it is to live like I really belong. 

The Places we Belong


“The place to which you feel the strongest attachment isn’t necessarily the country you’re tied to by blood or birth: it’s the place that allows you to become yourself. This place may not lie on any map.” – Jhumpa Lahiri

On Saturday we celebrated my father’s 90th birthday. 90 years! It is incredible to think that this man has walked this world for so long.

Our family gathered in Rochester, New York from as far as Kazakhstan and as close as Rochester to celebrate my dad. We celebrated his life through memories, songs, hymns, stories, and prayers. It was a beautiful time in celebration of a remarkable man.

Beyond the party were the connections to family: a cousin I haven’t seen since I was six years old; my beautiful Aunt Ruth who can outspell and outscrabble anyone in the family; my nieces – all beautiful women, some with husbands and children of their own, each doing remarkable things; my nephews – one an extraordinary musician and another like one of my own sons; my brothers and their wives – all so special to me.

It’s with in the context of this large, extended family that I feel that strong sense of belonging, that sense that I don’t have to be someone I’m not, that I can relax and be at home.

As I said goodbye, like I’ve done thousands of times before, I felt again that sweet sadness. Sweet – in that I’m glad I feel sad to say goodbye. How awful it would be to feel glad to wipe the dust off my feet and be glad it is over. How much better that I feel a sense of loss and sadness, because I love and belong.

As we drove away with the warmth of hugs and kisses, leftovers of our goodbyes, I realize again that no map can truly tell me where I belong. Because belonging is so much bigger than geography, so much greater than a physical location. Belonging is where you can become who you are supposed to be, where your existence matters not because of what you do, but because of who you are. Belonging is that place where people have stories about you, and you about them. Belonging is memories and laughter, and above all – grace.

Monday morning is here, and with it the smiles and delight of the weekend past. In the tired rush of morning, I barely see the impatience and resignation that surrounds me on the subway. The security of belonging paves my steps and I walk in peace.