Books and My Moral Dilemma

English: All 24 John Griham novels as of June ...

I remember the first time I did it. You do it once and you can never go back.

It was a John Grisham novel – The Firm. We were living in Cairo and my husband was traveling. I had little kids — four at the time. I had bathed, storied, and kissed them and as I passed bedrooms I could hear their soft, rhythmic, innocent breathing.

This was My time.

I lay in bed and picked up the book. The only reason I hadn’t read during the day was time. And now I had time.

I began reading. And I read, and I read, and I read some more. I was deeper and deeper into the novel. I knew it was late but I avoided the clock. When I finally looked, it was already 2 in the morning. I knew I had to go to sleep. But I also had to know the end. I had to. I couldn’t stay up reading — I was single parenting, making sure four children were where they were supposed to be, when they were supposed to be there. But I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I didn’t know what happened. Would the lawyer and his wife make it?

It was a moral dilemma. I knew that ‘real book lovers’ don’t read the end of books. I knew it was a moral code that could mark me for a long time.

So I did the unthinkable – I skipped to the end. I read the end of the book.

Even now I feel the shame of it, the magnitude of that one act, that one time. Because I knew if I could do it once – I’d do it again. And maybe again. And then maybe I’d do it one more time…..

I would be whispered about and bear the shame and humiliation of being one of ‘those’ people, one who reads the end of books. “Who does that? Who reads the end of books?” would be the conversation and I would shake my head and say “I don’t know! Who does that?” While inside I would hang my head and pray they never found out.

What about you? Have you ever skipped to the end of a book? Did you break the unspoken law of book reading? Tell all through the comments.


Readers – Today Communicating Across Boundaries celebrates 1000 posts! You helped this milestone happen by reading, contributing guest posts, and interacting with pieces that you read, posts that resonated in your heart and soul. Thank you! Here’s to 1000 more! (If blogging even continues as a ‘thing’, right?!)


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When Fear is Your Currency [aka ‘Is it Safe?’]

erasing fear

“But is it safe?”

My friend stopped drinking her Skinny Vanilla Latte ala Starbucks. She was truly concerned. It was back in late August and I had just told her about the trip I was going on to India in September. I had described what I would be doing, spoken with excitement about the place and the possibilities, but this was her spontaneous reaction.

This is the number one question that I’m asked whenever we travel. Over and over again people ask me those three powerful words: “Is it Safe?”

They say it with doubt as to whether they will trust my response. They say it with much skepticism, and I know as they voice their concern, that the one asking the question will not believe my answer.

I understand the sentiment behind it, we are all products of our upbringing and the media. Unfortunately the way the media portrays life outside the United States is never as safe; it is always ‘not safe’. If one is to believe media reports, whether it be newspapers, online news sources, or television, everything outside the United States is suspect – it is ‘not safe’.

This of course is ridiculous. And yet I know what I felt while sitting in Egypt, reading news from the United States — I was terrified. Evil people kidnapped kids in the United States! Gunmen entered elementary schools and shot innocent children. The United States was a place where the phrase ‘going postal’ became synonymous with violent attacks; a place where random shootings and gang warfare threatened you and your children.

From far away the United States was terrifying. At least, that was my perception. 

Indeed, when we moved from Cairo, Egypt with 26 suitcases and a cat, living temporarily in a small apartment near Capital Hill in Washington D.C, I was beyond afraid. The neighborhood was known as a high crime area. We had left a middle eastern city of 16 million people where I felt safe and at home. Now I had five children, aged one to eleven, and felt I couldn’t go outside for fear of being mugged or hurt.

Robynn in her post “Lessons from Kansas on Living with Storms” makes a profound point: the storm you have is better than the one you don’t. One of the readers of that post gave this illustration: “a few years ago we met a group of Floridians who had just returned from a trip to Northern Iraq. It was a year with a lot of hurricanes in FL. While in Iraq, a dear Iraqi man asked them sincerely, “Florida??–isn’t it dangerous to live there??!!” It is a matter of perspective!”

While I don’t believe we are all called to go into war zones, and I believe we must exercise discernment and wisdom, particularly when we have others who we are responsible for, I do believe that no matter where we are and what we do, when we live under fear, we are using bad currency. When we make decisions based on fear, we go bankrupt.

When fear is our currency, we cannot live effectively. Whether this be around parenting, around work, or around where we are called to live, this is truth. When fear is our currency, we forget that safety is not about where we live, or work, or play.

Safety is about knowing where our security lies, what we’re called to do, and who we’re called to be.

Allison Krauss, the bluegrass-country singer, has a song that speaks to me around safety, reminding me that it’s faith, not fear, that should be my currency. It’s these words that have come to me at times when fear creeps in and threatens to own me, to run my life, and it’s these words I offer to us today:I’d rather be in the palm of your hand, though rich or poor I may be. Faith can see right through the circumstance, see the forest in spite of the trees. Your grace provides for me.” 


gingerbread muffinsAnd today’s muffins look incredible! Here are Dark Chocolate Gingerbread Muffins for #Muffin Monday. Stacy says this: “Before I left Dubai, I baked this week’s muffin but I was definitely channeling cold weather and the coming of Christmas.  I made gingerbread batter to which I added melted semi-sweet chocolate for an even richer muffin.” Thanks again Stacy for giving us so many creative choices.   

Image credit: raywoo / 123RF Stock Photo

A Life Overseas – Sacrifice, Sheep, and Raising Kids Cross-Culturally


It’s Saturday and we have a house full of college kids and young adults. Pumpkin croissants, courtesy of Trader Joe’s, are baking in a 350 degree oven, taking the chill off this fall morning. I’m awake early, grateful and full.

I wrote this post for A Life Overseas–retooling an older, shorter piece I had written a couple of years ago. Would love to have you take a look and tell your stories of connecting across the cross-cultural divide.

Beginning Monday evening through all day Tuesday, Muslims around the world will celebrate Eid al Adha – the feast of sacrifice.

Eid al Adha is the second of two feasts that occur after Ramadan. This feast is the biggest and most important holiday of the Muslim year and concludes the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca and one of the five pillars of Islam. It is considered the ‘Greater Eid’.

Significant to Eid al Adha is the sacrifice of an animal. A goat, sheep, camel and sometimes even a cow, is sacrificed and cooked to perfection, a feast for family and friends.

Thinking about Eid al Adha takes me back to both my childhood in Pakistan and to raising children in the Middle East. My mind returns to a walk-up apartment, a dark stair-well, and a bleating sheep.

Every year as Eid al Adha came around our neighbors purchased a sheep and, in the absence of green space, the sheep made its home in our stairwell. At the time we had no household pet and our children bonded with the sheep, delighted with the plaintive brown eyes and the friendly “baa” that greeted us every time we came and went from our apartment.  This was ‘their’ pet. All the while my husband and I knew that this sheep had a preordained purpose – to be fattened in anticipation of the Feast of Sacrifice. The leftover vegetables on our stairwell were indicative that this would be one fat sheep to slaughter.

And so the day would inevitably arrive. The stairwell was silent as our children trooped downstairs.“Where’s the sheep? What happened to the sheep?” 

Read the rest here! 

Whether you’re in Pakistan or Brazil, Cambodia or Istanbul, Cairo or Chicago, Rochester or Kansas– May you have time for tea and reflection today. And as I’ve said before and will continue to say as long as I’m blogging–Thanks so much for reading. I never take it for granted.

A Cross, A Camel and a Nosepin – Outer Symbols of an Inner Self

20130723-084123.jpgOn a gold chain around my neck I wear an Ethiopian cross and a small gold camel. When I take them off my neck feels naked, but more than that my identity feels compromised.

I also wear a tiny diamond in my nose – my nosepin. I never take it off.

These three objects are outer symbols of my inner self. They come as close as anything will to representing parts of my life that are precious, parts that I can’t always articulate.

The cross was purchased in the Khan el-Khalili market in Cairo, Egypt. This market is famous for its myriad of shops down tiny streets that are so narrow no car could drive through safely.The bazaar sits under the shadow of the Al-Hussein mosque and lures tourists and residents alike into its colors and delights. When you’ve lived in Cairo awhile you get tired of taking your visiting friends to the market, but once you’ve been away you long for those narrow streets and shops filled with perfume bottles of delicate glass, pottery of bright colors, and gold of brilliant shine. We bought the cross on a trip back to Cairo a few years after we uprooted our family and moved to a land far away and unfamiliar – the United States. It represents a a precious faith, a faith that didn’t leave me when I thought I would leave it. A faith that burns brighter through fire, much like the gold in the cross; gold refined by smelting out the impurities.

I love my cross. My Ethiopian cross.

Paired with the cross on the same chain is the camel. One Christmas in Cairo Cliff surprised me with a small gold camel. He had written to parents and family members that he had purchased a solid-gold camel for me for Christmas. For a month following Christmas we received mail joking about our camel. “Could we get it through the door?” “How did we capture it and turn it into gold?” Sarcastic and humorous comments puzzled us until we realized that family thought Cliff was joking. They had never seen the small, delicate camels that were sold in the gold section in Khan el-Khalili and one paragraph ended with “No. Really. What did you really get her?”

I lost that camel. I still don’t know how but losing my signature necklace hurt me in ways that I was unprepared for. Then last year my mother-in-law was taking out some old jewelry to give to my daughter and had two tiny gold camels, camels we had given her as earrings years before. I claimed both of them with a strength that surprised even me. I reclaimed my symbol, my signature piece.

And then there’s my nosepin…..! As a teenager in Pakistan I wanted a nosepin. Someone at the International School in Islamabad had one and I was mightily jealous. But under the roof of my parents, the answer was a resounding “no’. So when I moved to Pakistan with a husband and baby I was determined to change the nose situation. Two months after giving birth to my second child I went to an expensive jewelry shop and sat on a velvet stool. (as Robynn did because it was the same shop) I have never regretted it. Even now, when it’s assumed that I am a left over hippy, I’ve no regrets.

Since time began, we humans have used the tangible to represent the intangible. An object to define what language sometimes can’t.

I am well aware that these are outer symbols. I am aware that they don’t define who I am before God. I still believe outer symbols are important. I believe we wear these symbols to emphasize what we believe and what we love. Just as on Ash Wednesday the ashes mark those who are embarking on a Lenten journey, so do our outer symbols represent some of our journey.

My faith, my travel, my childhood. My God, the Middle East, Pakistan, Identity, Longing — all represented through these symbols. Three simple symbols of a complicated inner self.

What do you think? How have you used outer symbols to reflect your inner self?

Join me at A Life Overseas – “When Envy Rots the Soul”

Readers – I’m at A Life Overseas today where I’ll be sharing about envy. It was a convicting post to write and I hope you’ll join me. Oh – and did I tell you I’ll be writing regularly for A Life Overseas? So honored to join this fabulous team of writers! 


We sat in our postage stamp size garden, tea and home-made cookies in front of us. The weather was beautiful — a cloudless seventy degrees, typical of a Cairo spring. It was early afternoon and the call to prayer had just echoed through the area from a nearby mosque.

We were talking about language learning, the time it takes, the struggle, how we vacillated between feeling like idiots to feeling like small children reduced to no verbs and minimal participles.

“I wish I had language ability like Claire. Her Arabic is so good!*”

The cloudless sky darkened and green entered my soul.

“Well – if you and I had been here as long as she has and if we didn’t have as many kids our Arabic would be good too!” I said it lightly with a laugh – eager to hide the ugly of my envy.

She laughed, whether in agreement or out of politeness, and the moment quickly passed.

But it didn’t. Not really.

Because this had happened more than once; this ugly envy that entered my soul around a myriad of things. Whether it was language learning or how many Egyptian friends I had, envy had this way of creeping in and affecting my friendships, destroying unity.

I have met the most gifted people in the world who are involved in life overseas. Men and women who have left much of the familiar and entered into countries where they are guests, forging their way in territory that is unfamiliar from language to food choices. The list of characteristics of what it takes is long and impressive. Adaptability, perseverance, compassion, adventurous spirit, capable of ambiguity, linguistic ability, great sense of humor, empathy — the list goes on and on. But take a group of people, all with the same goal and similar characteristics, insert jealousy and envy and unity is no more.

Because envy is insidious in its ability to destroy relationships. It loves to disguise itself in well-meaning jargon and light humor. It snakes its way into conversation and behavior. It is called the green-eyed monster for a reason.

Read more at A Life Overseas – When Envy Rots the Soul.

Guest Posting at Djibouti Jones – A TCK Talks About Raising TCK’s

Today’s post is perhaps the truest piece I’ve ever posted. It is a piece I needed to write and I look forward to hearing from some of you. I’ve included an excerpt here and then I ask you to go to Djibouti Jones to read the rest of the piece.

Just being brought up by people who didn’t and still don’t feel fully here, fully present–that’s very intense,” ….. “It’s not just all about the house we live in and the friends we have right here. There was always a whole other alternative universe to our lives.” from Jhumpa Lahiri: The Quiet Laureate – Time Magazine 2008

English: Maria Spelterini is walking across a ...

If I could pick two words to describe my life they would be the words “Between Worlds”. Like a tightrope walker suspended between buildings, so was my life.  My tightrope was between Pakistan and the United States; between home and boarding; between Muslim and Christian.

Since birth I knew I lived in a culture between – I was a third culture kid.

I realized early in life that airports and airplanes were perfect places of belonging, because I was literally between worlds as I sat in airports, idling the time with my books and my brothers waiting for flights. Or sitting in the airplane, row 33D, buckling and unbuckling while settling in to a long flight.

I always knew I would raise my children overseas. In my mind it was a given. It made complete sense – it was a world I loved and my kids would love it too.

But there is a curious dynamic when an adult third culture kid moves on to raise third culture kids. First off, you transfer your love of travel, adventure, languages, and cross-cultural living. You don’t worry that they will be away from their passport countries, you don’t worry that they’ll miss aunts and uncles. You know theirs is a life that few have, and even fewer understand but you also know that in many areas the benefits outweigh the deficits.

So I was set. My world was a world of expat comings and goings, making friends with Egyptians, conjugating verbs in Arabic classes, and attending events at international schools. It was a world of change and transience and we were at home within that transience. We didn’t name the losses – we didn’t think there were any.

But then we moved. We left our home in Cairo of 7 years, our life overseas of 10 years, and moved to a small town in New England. A town that boasted community and Victorian homes, a small school and tidy lawns. A town with white picket fences and white faces……..Read More Here!

Wrapping up the Week ~ 6.01.13

It’s hot. It’s as though all the passionate pleas for warmth during winter gathered in the Heavens and sunshine and heat have come in abundance. I love this weather with all its sweat and lethargy. The whirring fans spell ‘h-o-m-e’ and the heat takes me to palm trees and dust, to Pittman’s house in Karachi and Addleton’s in Shikarpur, to Islamabad and Rawalpindi and Cairo back to my couch in Cambridge. I love this.

The cottage 3And today we unpack ‘place’. A small cottage-condo by the sea will be ours for the summer until fall rolls round and new renters sign a lease. Rockport is a special place for our family. Rockport means slow weekends with no internet or television, piles of books, long walks by the rocky coast, and art projects galore.

And so my blogging schedule will change. I will be posting Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, Robynn will continue on Fridays, and Saturday wrap-ups will go on hiatus until the fall.  Any extra time will be spent enjoying summer life and working on a two book projects – one with Robynn where we explore more of our TCK roots and compile what we’ve already written and add fresh, new material; and another that is shaping in my head with input from my husband and brother, Dan.

Onto wrapping up the week….

On Photography: My brother Stan has submitted a photo to the National Park Photo Contest in the United States. Stan is a superb photographer and this picture does not disappoint. Take a look at ‘Realignment’ and pass it on to others. You can share on Facebook as well as vote on it.

On getting rid of books and moving on: All of us know what it’s like to go through that gritty, difficult passage from one stage to another. Sometimes it happens through moving countries, other times through other life events. In a NY Times op-ed Stanley Fish explores this in a piece called Moving On. He begins the article on looking at what it was like to get rid of books and look at empty shelves but moves it from there to looking at retirement. A quote from the piece:

“I’m not going to go on forever. I avoid this realization, even as I voice it. I say, “I’m not going to go on forever,” and at the same time I’m busily signing new contracts, accepting new speaking invitations, thinking up new courses, hungering after new accolades. My books are clearer-eyed than I am. They exited the stage without fuss and will, one hopes, take up residence in someone else’s library where they will be put to better uses than to serve as items in a museum, which is what they were when they furnished my rooms.” from Moving On NY Times May 27,2013

On writing: I was delighted to be asked to be a monthly contributor to A Life Overseas. I’ve contributed two articles to A Life Overseas and love the perspective I see from other authors there. They are working through thoughts and feelings on poverty, nationalism, saying goodbye, having household help, and faith with passion and strong voice. I feel privileged to join them on this journey.

On the amazing book by my bedside table: It continues to be Americanah and oh I am loving this book. The descriptions, the attention to detail, notions of home, flawed and fully relatable characters  – all of it wrapped up in a great package. I don’t want this book to end quickly so I’m taking it in sips.

And to you who read….last night I met someone at a wedding who reads Communicating Across Boundaries.  I had met her only once before and she found the blog through a link on someone elses’s site – so humbling and wonderful to meet her. That’s how I feel about you all – it’s an honor that you read and share. Thank you and see you on Monday!

Stories of Lost Luggage

Okay – let’s hear them! The stories of lost luggage and distraught travelers.

After years of traveling with a clean record of luggage arrival, the spell ended when my boyfriend (now husband) and I went to Pakistan by way of Cairo to get engaged.

We had planned the trip for weeks. While I didn’t know we were getting engaged, I knew for sure we were serious and my parents had to meet him. Who was this “Cliff” that they heard about through long letters punctuated with a thousand exclamation marks?


So we planned. And we purchased. And we packed.

We headed out about ten days before Christmas leaving bitter Chicago weather and traveling to Pakistan with a 3 day stop in Cairo planned. Our suitcases were full of Christmas presents. We had the Little House on the Prairie series of books for our Cairo friends; packets, jars, and bags of food that they could not get in either Pakistan or  Cairo – we even carried a fake Christmas tree in a duffel bag.

We arrived in Cairo and our luggage did not. It was a sad day.

For 3 days we talked about what they ‘would have’ received and how exciting it ‘would have’ been. The worst thing for me personally was that I had no clothes. I was a woman who was in love, soon to be engaged, and insecure in a place I didn’t know. If I had lost my baggage in Karachi – no problem! I knew how to shop, I was in control – I knew the ways. But this was Cairo – my first visit to Cairo. I borrowed clothes from a woman with a completely different figure type and to this day the pictures taken on that trip were the most uncomplimentary pictures that I’ve ever had taken in my life. I look as awkward as I remember feeling.

No matter, for we arrived in Pakistan 3 days later and I was home! Greeted by my parents, introducing Cliff to both parents and Pakistan for the first time, collecting money from PIA (Pakistan International Airline) so I could shop in my favorite bazaars in Karachi – pure magic.

One week later we received word that the luggage had indeed arrived in the Karachi airport, all but one piece. My boyfriend  (turned fiancee one day after arrival who is now my husband) and my brother took a train ride to Karachi to pick up the luggage in time for Christmas – and that’s a blog post in itself, but not mine to tell. All except one piece. Six months later a duffel bag arrived on our door step – in it was a fake Christmas tree that had traveled the world and arrived at our Chicago apartment in the summer. M & M’s and other candy that had broken out of its packages was strewn through out the branches, giving it a particularly decorative look. The humor of the whole thing still has us telling the story.

So what’s your story of lost luggage?

Since I had so few takers on the giveaway announced on Saturday – here’s your chance to take part. Add your story to the comments and you will be put into the pool to receive a book! Take a look here for what that book might be~