Goodbye 250

I get on the bus and swipe my Charlie Card, my ticket to discounted rides for the last ten and a half years. The bus driver nods as I say hello. There is room to sit down, but I stand. Central Square is a 12-minute walk from my house, but the bus is a wonderful back up when I’m running late. Or when it’s hot. Or when it’s cold. Or just because it’s there and it’s morning, and in the morning I’m a slow mover.

As I step to the side to hold onto a bar, I see that my bus friend is there. Bus friends are those special people that become a part of you and that cynics tell you are not your real friends, but you know better. This particular ‘friend’  works at Simmons College and we have seen each other a couple of days a week ever since I moved to Cambridge. We exchange greetings and I compliment her on a new hair cut. She laughs. It’s not the cut she says – it’s the glasses. “Ever since I got new glasses I’ve had compliments on my hair!” I laugh and say whatever it is, it’s a good look. We older women need each other. We know that our youth is gone. We know that our bodies and our faces bear the marks of life, sometimes well-lived, and sometimes just lived. We know that worship and attention go to the young, and so whatever we can give to each other, we give with abandon.

I get off at Central Square and walk down the steps to the subway. I do all these things without even thinking. They are second nature. I am now the person that strangers in the city approach – I earned the right to belong without even knowing I had earned it.

The subway ride is short. I know every station before we even get there. I know the pictures that form the tiles at Kendall/MIT. I know the coming out of the darkness and into the light of Charles MGH, the Charles River – beautiful, no matter the season. I know the sailboats on the river, their sails identifying the schools or organizations to whom they belong. I know the view of Boston from the subway. The subway moves on, going underground again to stop at Park Street. I get off and make my way up the stairs, into the light of Boston Common.

Park Street church, with its church bells that ring every day at noon, stands solid in front of me. Suffolk University School of Law is just down Tremont Street on the right. The gold-domed Statehouse stands tall up the hill to my left.

An ambulance bears down on the street, disrupting the early morning calm, as if reminding all of us that this is a city, and cities are never really still.

I begin to walk up Tremont Street, realizing that this city has become a part of me without me even realizing it. The beauty of the city with its walkability, its green spaces and its old charm is a part of me. The ugly of the city with some of its past abuses is now in my conscience. The good that I have been honored to be a part of through my job, watching community health centers and hospitals work with those most in need, is on my shoulders and in my body.  I know the names of some of the homeless. I know people who serve at the restaurants around me. I know the doormen at the Omni Parker Hotel. My husband would tell you that I know the manager of TJ Maxx, but I would quickly refute him.

From Tremont, I turn right at the Omni Parker, famous for Parker House Rolls and Boston Cream Pie, and continue down School Street, soon turning left onto Washington Street. I stop in front of the revolving doors of 250 Washington Street and take in the moment. I look at it hard. I entered these doors to work, first as consultant and then as full-time employee, in April of 2008. I have never stayed at a workplace for so long. Until this job, I never had to work through staying when the work gets mundane. I never had to work through bureaucracy and the patience it produces. I never fought so hard for programs to serve communities that I love as I did in this job. I never had the honor of working with community members who fight every day for their communities to get what they need. I have never laughed so hard or so much with colleagues. I have never shared myself the way I have with these colleagues, many who are now friends. I have never fought so hard, worked so hard, or felt so much joy with the results as I have these past ten years. It has been hard work and it has been such a privilege. I leave knowing what it is to quietly and persistently fight for what you love. We have been able to do work in the foreign-born Muslim community that I never thought possible. We now have a 5-year grant with a focus on women’s health in the Asian, Black, and foreign-born Muslim communities. I’ve learned the joy and strength that comes from fighting hard to serve those you love.

Somehow along the way during these ten years I have become a part of something bigger than myself and I have become from somewhere. It happened without a fight or a big bang. Instead, daily putting one step in front of the other I became a part of this city and her people, and she became a part of me.

And today is my last work day. The last day that I sit in my cubicle, answer emails from my official email account, and answer the phone in my official capacity. Soon I will leave Boston and Cambridge. A plane will take me thousands of miles away to a small apartment on the other side of the world. I will leave a place I love to go to a place I have begun to love. Who is so fortunate? I ask myself this question every day. 

And when people ask me where I’m from, I will say with some pride, and no hesitation “I’m from Boston.” Those are sweet words indeed. 

So, You Want to go Back ‘Home’?

There come’s a time in the lives of most adult third culture kids, many expats, as well as immigrants and refugees when they want to go ‘home.’ Sometimes it’s after a short time of living away; other times it’s after years, but always it comes with a sense of great anticipation coupled with a strong shot of fear.

What is it like to go back home? How does it feel? How should I prepare? 

There is no stock answer to this, but perspectives from adult third culture kids who have gone back to visit can help.

I’m addressing this today, but I’m also opening it up to others. I would love to compile a set of essays with the common theme of “Going Home”. Do you write? Do you draw? Are you a poet? Think about contributing to a collection of “Going Home” essays and visual pieces! Send any ideas or contributions to communicatingblog@gmail.com.

The familiar and the new

When I stepped off the plane in Pakistan, it was all so sweetly familiar. My heart broke with the beauty of familiarity. This is the place I knew and loved, the familiar smell of chapatis and curry; the beautiful sound of the call to prayer; the sounds of childhood through Urdu and Sindhi speakers; the heat and beauty of bright fuchsia Bougainvillea – all of it was so sweetly beautiful.

But as we were driving from the airport and rounded a corner, I suddenly saw the newness of everything. New buildings, roads, bridges, and restaurants.  And then the new things that were not pretty. There was a massive garbage pile of bright pastel colored plastic bags and my heart sank with the sadness of waste marring what used to be empty land and palm trees.

It was the familiar and the new, such a visual representation of the paradox of being a third culture kid; the conflict of replacing the old memories with new experiences.

Be prepared to hate that you are “just visiting”

When you have lived in a place, it is incredibly difficult to “just visit”. It doesn’t feel right at any level. I wrote about this a few years ago here. We were visiting Cairo when I first remember this question.

It was in Cairo that we had watched three of our five children take their first steps.
It was in Cairo where our youngest two were born, three years apart. It was our community in this city that had loved us and cared for us through pregnancies and sickness; through post-delivery chaos and family crises; and through packing up and leaving when the time came. The apartment we lived in still had markings of our children’s measurements on the doorpost. We had seen these just a day before while with our friends.

Cairo had been home for a long time and it broke our hearts to leave. We said goodbye to all those things we loved so deeply. Rides in huge, wooden boats called feluccas on the Nile River; Egyptian lentils (Kosherie) with the spicy tomato sauce and crispy fried onions to top it off; friendships that had been forged through hours of talking and doing life together; a church that was one of a kind with people from all over the world.

So when the woman asked me the question I didn’t know what to say. A lump came into my throat and I willed myself to hold back the tears.

The words ‘Visit’ and ‘Live’ are worlds apart. Visit means stranger, tourist, one who goes and stays in a place for a “short time.” The dictionary definition is clear on this.
It goes on to add “for purposes of sociability, business, politeness, curiousity…”

By contrast, the word live means “to dwell, to stay as a permanent resident.”

The reality is that I no longer live in either Cairo or Pakistan (or Chicago or Phoenix). I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That is my legal address. I do not have permission to live or work in either of those countries, and at times it hurts.

While in a sense we are going ‘home’, in another sense we are just visiting. We have changed, as have the places that we love so dearly. My daughter once wrote that we belong to these lands where we lived, but they do not belong to us. Again, it’s being comfortable with paradox, with living between.

Understand that you may revisit feelings of grief and loss

When an adult third culture kid or expat suddenly finds himself or herself a stranger, a visitor in a land they once claimed, the grief is acute and necessary. There is no way around but through and trying to avoid the reality is not helpful.

The grief that washed over me in Cairo the first time I returned was deep and I wanted to bury myself in it. I wanted to be able to grieve with abandon, to cry the tears I had wanted to cry since leaving two years prior. I wanted to cry tears that would water the dusty ground that surrounded me, ground that had not seen water for a long time. But I couldn’t. 

Because indulging in the grief I felt at that moment would have taken me away from the place that I loved, the people who I loved.

The loss and grief that would come over me in waves when I visited Pakistan to work in flood relief was equally strong. But those times were woven into so many precious times of joy and belly aching laughter; times of reconnecting and hearing stories from people I had not seen for years. I willed the grief away so I would not waste the present time.

Don’t waste your present visit by dwelling on grief from your past. The grief has to come, it needs to come, but enjoy each moment, because that visit will be over all too soon. And the visit from the present may help heal some of the grief from the past.

Take the experience and weave it into the rest of your story

This is your story! Claim that story, map your journey, embrace the in between. We are so incredibly lucky to have these complex stories. No, we don’t always feel lucky, but with so much of the world facing displacement, we understand where others cannot. We can give empathy while others are silent in confusion. In the words of Anna Badkhen: “This is a century of dislocation not merely of body and home, but also of empathy, dignity, compassion.” We can be the people who take our feelings of displacement and use them to build bridges, use them to connect to others who are displaced, to find our voice in a world where people are lonely for connection.

Going back is a critical part of your story. Embrace it, don’t waste it, Because this I know, and I know it well: More difficult than a visit would have been no visit at all, far harder than facing my current reality would have been dreaming of the past in a country far removed and never getting to experience my beloved places again.

“The Story is not over; the journey continues….Somedays it feels as though it is still just beginning.”

Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey


I realize I have always belonged everywhere at once: on the road; in liminal spaces…I have always belonged at the beginning of the world, and where it seems to end, where the sky meets the sea, where the sea meets the land, on a plane when the two become indistinguishable from one another and you can no longer tell if you are going home or leaving it.*


Remember to submit any contributions to communicatingblog@gmail.com. Deadline is June 15. 

*A Map of Lost Things: On Family, Grief, and the Meaning of Home by Jamila Osman 

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. 

The Stories of Others

Learning to tell our storiesSince writing in a public space I have done a lot of reading and thinking about story – specifically writing the stories of others. I think about this as I come back from Iraq, full of stories, and I begin to tell these stories in this space.

Indeed, there is a lot to think about. The first question is if I even have the right to tell the story of another. Should I tell the story or not?

For help in sorting this through I have read several essays but the writer I continually come back to is Katherine Boo.

Boo is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who writes about poverty. She writes stories for those with no voice. In 2012 she was interviewed by Guernica magazine. The interview is a thoughtful, long-form piece and I encourage you to read the entire interview. What I love about her words is that she honestly addresses the struggle of writing with integrity. She addresses the criticism of telling the stories of others and the soul-searching that a writer who tells those stories goes through. While the topic she specifically writes about is poverty, it holds true for other stories as well.

Here is an excerpt from the article:

Guernica: At a lecture at American Academy, you recounted that during your reporting on that evacuation shelter for The New Yorker a woman told you, “Wait, so you take our stories and put them in a magazine that rich people read, and you get paid and we don’t? That’s some backward-ass bluffiness, if you ask me.” She seemed to sum up the moral dilemma that reporting on poverty raises. Can you speak to some of these ethical questions?

Katherine Boo: She said it better than I did. We take stories and purvey them to people with money. And in the conventions of my profession, which I try to adhere to, we can’t pay people for stories. Anyone with a conscience who does this work grapples with that reality, and if they don’t, I’d worry. I lie awake at night, and I think, “Am I exploiting them? Am I a vulture?” All of the terrible names anyone could call me, I’ve called myself worse.

But if writing about people who are not yourself is illegitimate, then the only legitimate work is autobiography; and as a reader and a citizen, I don’t want to live in that world. Because if you take a kid like Sunil, who’s been denied the possibility of an education that allows him to write his own story, and all of the people who lack the means and access to do so, they go down the memory hole. They’re lost. What it comes down to is, the only thing worse than being a poverty reporter is if no one ever wrote about it at all. My work, I hope, helps people understand how much gets lost between the intellection of how to get people out of poverty and how it’s actually experienced. 

There’s more to this than the telling. It’s also how we tell the story.

If someone is entrusting us with their story and has given us permission to share the story, it means we have an obligation, a responsibility to tell it the best way possible. If we are telling our own story or the stories of others, we have a responsibility to tell the narrative with integrity and truth. But we also have a responsibility to write and tell stories as well as we possibly can – and that means with descriptive language, with passion, with sensitivity. We have a responsibility to write so that people want to read and want to share. We are the voice for the one who doesn’t write. We are custodians of the story.

In the next few posts, I will be telling some stories of those whose voice would otherwise not be heard. I write, both grateful and fearful. Grateful, because I was able to sit with people and hear their hearts. Fearful, because it is important that I honor their story, and in an online space that is not always easy.

But if you as readers have shown me anything, it’s that you honor stories. So I hope you’ll join me as I tell some of the stories that I heard in Iraq. Thanks for reading along.