A Life Overseas – On Family Albums and What I Didn’t Know

Posted by Marilyn

Our family albums tell amazing stories. Picnics in the shadow of the Great Pyramids of Egypt; bucket baths in Swat Valley – home to Malala the brave; hiking in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains; feeding pigeons outside the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul; climbing on canons in Quebec City; wandering through Topkapi Palace with cousins, an added bonus; early morning train journeys from Ankara to Istanbul; roaming the streets of Cairo and boat rides on the Nile. 

Amazing stories, each one of them. Each one an entry into a thick family album.

And then the stories changed, and with them the photographs. Those fading photographs changed from plane rides to road trips, from palm trees to sugar maples, from apartments in a large Middle Eastern city to a Victorian home on Main Street in New England. Suddenly there were leaves to rake during golden autumns. Warm winters with no need for snow boots changed to delighted cries of “It’s snowing” followed by sledding on the small hill in our back yard. Spring saw us aching for the warmth of summer and forcing forsythia to bloom and bring color and new life. And then there were the summers, where daily trips to the ocean, even if it was for only an hour, were necessary as we experienced the magic of low tide on rocky New England beaches.

We were no longer on planes every year, our passports ready to be stamped. Our suitcases had layers of dust on them and the trunks that had so faithfully crossed the ocean found other uses storing legos and other toys. The reminders of our former lives were reduced to photo albums, stories, stamps in our passports, and Arafat and Rabin, sworn enemies, looking out at us from a heart-shaped frame on our mantle.

Our photo albums capture points in time, but not the whole narrative. Not the narrative of transition and loss, of starting a new life and trying to recreate home. Written through every picture is the hidden narrative of finding home within transition. Finding home in a world that changed frequently.

And what about our children in all of this? What about those blonde and dark heads, those blue and brown eyes, those toddler And elementary school bodies that even then were growing into a space far beyond our walls of safety? What about those kids captured so well in photographs, and yet – not really captured at all?

I knew nothing of the third culture life when we began this journey. I knew that I felt most comfortable between worlds but I had not discovered the language to articulate this. I knew I felt different in the United States then I did in Pakistan, but the research was new and not mainstream. I was a third culture kid raising third culture kids, and I didn’t have a clue as to what that really meant.

Shallow roots are tender, they need care as they are being transplanted. We hurt shallow roots because we didn’t know any better.


In the midst of such constant change, how do we still find a way to be in the world, to build a home under ever-changing conditions? I think the answer is found not in the concept of home per se but what a home provides us, which is a place of dwelling. To dwell is to linger, to safely be.

DR. MICHELLE HARWELL 

When we live lives that take us miles from family and home cultures, we learn that a home is far more than four walls and a roof. Home becomes people, routines, precious objects that make their way across oceans and transitions, and digging up roots that, though shallow, are still roots.

How do we navigate all of this? How do we adapt when change and transition feel like the only constants?How do we keep up the rhythms of home, and a sense of belonging when the walls of home have moved?


As children, I think we take for granted that a home is gifted to us. It’s made for us through the routines, the four walls that surround and the emotional rhythms that build a sense of familiarity and holding. As we grow, that sense of belonging to a place and a people translates to a more robust internal belonging and holding that allows us to venture further and further out into the world.

DR. MICHELLE HARWELL

I didn’t know back then – but now I do know, and this is what I would tell my younger self – Click here to read the rest of the piece at A Life Overseas.

“At two and a bit, he understood neither distance nor time. What he understood was that we were there, but he was not. For the first time in his short life, he learnt how to say goodbye.”

DANAU TANU AUTHOR OF GROWING UP IN TRANSIT 

“What is it, to Live Between?”

There was a giant chasm between worlds, a chasm separated by more than an ocean. It was a chasm of culture and food and people and faith, and I was suspended somewhere in the middle of the chasm.

Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey

When I began writing, I never set out to write about living between. I found however that it was impossible. When you have lived between for so long, of course it will come out in your writing. If we are are going to be honest writers, our earned fact and lived experience can’t help but make its way onto the page. And in sharing this lived experience, I’ve found others – whether writers or readers – who share this earned fact of living between.

I recently posed a question to some of those writers and readers. I asked them to describe what it was for them to live between worlds. The answers didn’t surprise me, but they did encourage me and offer insight that I needed. They made me feel like I was not alone.

To you who this day may be feeling alone, read what some others have said, and know that we are on this journey together.


It’s a Privilege…

It’s a rare and precious privilege for us to be able to live ‘between’ worlds, but I think that the price we pay is to forever surrender the option of utterly belonging – completely and without question – in a single place ever again. I think it’s a price most of us would willingly pay if asked in advance, but it’s often unanticipated. (Thinking a lot about ‘belonging’ today as I spend my first birthday in a new country just 6 days after arrival – my husband’s at work and I’ve not had a chance to build a new community yet. So thankful this isn’t my first international move and I can see past the fog of these early days to the inevitable lovely ones to come!) – Carolyn

It’s Exhausting…

“I find that in living between worlds I am forever focused on fitting in wherever I am, I have to struggle to define who I am anymore. As I age, I find I tire of this constant dance between cultures and tongues and I finally start to use and be thankful for my mother tongue English more, embrace my sloppier American way of dressing and eat my heart food of dahl bhat at least once a week – no matter what anyone says.” – Lizzy

It’s Lonely….

“Honestly, it’s lonely. People in your host country don’t understand what you have come from, your culture etc and people at home don’t understand where you are and your new life, And living between the two, is lonely. Not saying life is bad and lonely etc. I feel so privileged to live where we do, and I love my home country a lot and miss it, but living between the two worlds – it can be lonely.” – Ally

It’s the Best and It’s the Worst!

“Sometimes its the best of both worlds, sometimes the worst of both. And for the worst bit, I uses to try to explain it but I don’t anymore.” – Katherine

It’s Missing Pieces of My Heart…

Never having all the pieces of my heart in one place. Always feeling like a piece was missing. – Chrissy

I Feel Foreign Where I Don’t Look Strange

“I feel at home where I look like a stranger and I feel foreign where I don’t look strange – am homesick no matter where. And on top of that – grateful for the privilege to be where and who I am” – Jutta

It’s Like Being an Amphibian…

“It feels like, you’re an amphibian. You feel like you belong in those two worlds.” – Adella

It takes Humility and Humor….

“Visiting and having friends between worlds is exciting and wonderful if you can constantly remember to have humility and humor. Working between worlds is a lot harder and requires the same ingredients plus very careful, intentional, and polite communication about absolutely everything.” – Julie

Only Happy on an Airplane…

“I was told as a young missionary that missionaries are only really happy on an airplane.  I don’t think that’s true any more, but there’s an element of anticipation in the “in between” where you’re so looking forward to those elements and people that you have been missing that you forget about all the things you’ll miss.” – Marianne

What it Takes from us in Roots, It Gives Back in Perspective….

“If a life of change has taught me nothing else, it is the truth of impermanence. How Things are now is not necessarily how things will be later. Which is a huge lesson to learn as well. Maybe what this lifestyle takes from us in roots, it gives back in perspective, just as you say- the seeing of both sides.”- Carolyn

It’s Surreal…

“The first day between places- when you have been at both places and still feel exhausted from travel, is surreal.” – Amy

It’s a Narrative, Not One Point in Time

“Our story of living between is not one point in time. Though you may meet us at one point in time, our lives are bigger than that. You may meet us at a point of sadness, of disconnect – and you assume that is who we are. That living between has made us sad. But that’s only one point of a much bigger story. Our stories are narratives of living between. The points of sadness and disconnect, of not belonging and feeling other are not the whole narrative. There’s the points of understanding displacement, of the incredible joy of discovery, the points of growing empathy from young ages, of taking that empathy and discovering that it is foundational to bridge-building, to seeing both sides. And then that glorious gift of travel that makes us feel alive, stirs us out of complacency, and ushers us into the broader world.”

It’s a narrative of privilege, of discovery, of joy, of empathy, and yes…. of loneliness. Marilyn

What are your descriptions of living between? I would love to hear them.

Fall in Love with Your Neighborhood

On Sunday, we are moving to a new neighborhood. We found a little house to rent in a historic area of Boston. It is painted a deep red and has a postage-stamp yard where we anticipate hanging up white lights and sitting on patio chairs during late summer nights in September.

This house has come at a high cost – not money wise, although rents in Boston are high – but emotionally. It is the cost of leaving too soon, the cost of transition, the cost of not knowing what is next. This house is also priceless – it means we have an address, it means we have a neighborhood, it means that we can create a home. The juxtaposition of those two truths has been present throughout the process of finding this place.

As I anticipate moving and creating space and home, I also think about this new neighborhood that we will be exploring. A year ago it was Kurdistan, and a government-issued apartment. Now it’s Boston, and a little, red house. Both take courage, adventure, and being willing to fall in love with place.

Last week my daughter wrote a short piece about her neighborhood, accompanied by a picture. I loved it. I loved the word pictures, I loved the message, and I loved the challenge. I share it today, because it may be just what all of us need.


If you ever feel sad, fall in love with your neighborhood. If you ever feel lonely, walk down the streets and notice what you never do because you’re in a rush or you’re tired or your brain is too full to notice.

Notice the gardens overflowing from the second floor balconies. Notice the kids bikes with training wheels leaning against fences, telly you stories of people trying and falling and still trying agian. Notice the kitschy garden decor, always in season and telling you that someone who has made a home lives behind that fence. Notice the hammock on the porch, begging to be swung in and telly you to hang a lil more. Notice the bees buzzing in the lavender, telling you that nature isn’t some distant thing, but it’s two steps from your front door.

If you ever need to feel anything, to feel connected, to feel less like a stranger, fall in love with your neighborhood.

Talk to the lamp store guy and he’ll give you a free cushion for the rocking chair you bought from him last week and show you how to fix an old lamp. Talk to the cashier and she’ll tell you how to take care of your Pixie Peperomia. Smile at the dog who lays over for a belly rub and give him the best belly rub ever.

Just fall in love with your neighborhood and remember that it needs people to love it so that it always remains as magical as it’s always been.

If you feel sad, fall in love with your neighborhood.

S.S. Gardner

Low Tide at Wingaersheek

Low Tide at Wingaersheek

Wingaersheek Beach is a beach in Gloucester, Massachusetts. A winding road off Route 128 takes you up hills and around curves, like you’re traveling to nowhere. But beyond the winding roads and heavily wooded area you realize there is an extraordinary beach, hidden from the unaware traveler.

Wingaersheek beach is unique among beaches. Massive rocks in the middle of the sand create a natural playground for children or seating spaces for adults to lounge. High tide pushes everyone toward the marshes and soft, white sand while low tide transforms the area into sand bars in the ocean and empty beach to roam and play.

For us the real magic of Wingaersheek comes after 5, when tired beach goers walk toward their cars, sand and sun covering their bodies, and we arrive. The real magic is low tide at sunset.

Our love of Wingaersheek began many years ago, during another tumultuous time of transition. We had been living in the mega city of Cairo, Egypt for seven years but circumstances urged us to return to the United States. We landed in Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C. with five kids, 26 suitcases, and an Egyptian Siamese cat named Pharaoh. Two of our kids had been born in Egypt, and none of them knew much about living in America. In fact, none of us did. In total we had lived in the United States for 12 months in 11 years. The best way to describe us was as hidden immigrants with good English skills.

We thought we would make our home in the suburban landscape of Washington D.C., where politicians, lobbyists, and power brokers hide behind expensively unassuming brick homes and everyone has to know someone to get anywhere. It turns out that this was the wrong place for us, and six weeks after arriving we found ourselves on the Northshore of Boston.

We were jobless and initially homeless, with an extended family that was praying hard.

I remember the palpable fear of a new beginning in the United States. I remember the unknown, the newness of everything, the anxiety about the future. I remember the sense of being on shaky ground; like an earthquake where you don’t remember where to go, and instead stand paralyzed, wondering when the tremors will stop.

Our hopes and plans for the future were all focused on living overseas. We never imagined that this would change, never imagined that our dreams would have to change, that our plans would have to shift. It was a death of expectations. It was the death of our life as we knew it. It was the death of a dream.

If someone had asked us what we had left behind, we would have said “Everything. We left everything behind.”

We found a ranch style house in the small town of Essex with a bright orange kitchen. It was an unimaginative house, but the pond behind the house provided hours of joy for our kids. We enrolled our three oldest in school, and we began to look for jobs.

It was now September and Massachusetts was at its finest. Each day dawned bright and golden, temperatures in the low seventies, blue sky that artists and lovers dream about.

We would wake up in the morning and get the three older kids off to school, comforting them as they bravely set out to make their own way in an American school in a small town. After the three older ones were off, we would sit down and look for jobs, scanning newspaper want ads and filling out job applications, all the while praying silently.

And then, we would go to Wingaersheek Beach. The two youngest were one and four years old, and we would pack them into car seats in our red mini van and ride the winding road to the ocean.

The ocean never disappointed. Laying a picnic blanket on the sand, we would sit and munch on sandwiches and fruit. One year old Jonathan was not yet walking and was content with a shovel and bucket. Four-year-old Stefanie would prance all over the sand in a polka dot bikini, her whole being alive with the joy of sand, sun, and ocean.

And we would rest. There was nothing else we could do. We couldn’t make people call us back to interview us, we couldn’t beg people for jobs, we couldn’t do anything to speed up the process. We did all we could do in the morning, and then we went to Wingaersheek Beach.

It was a gift during transition. A healing gift that filled our souls with hope when so much else felt hopeless. Allowing the gift of creation to do its solid work, we rested and we drank in the beauty all around us.

I never knew so many years ago that Wingaersheek would again become a solace during transition, but this August it has. With our unexpected early return from Kurdistan, we have done much the same as we did so many years ago. We have looked for jobs, contacted people, gone for interviews – and then we have gone to Wingaersheek Beach, where low tide and sunsets have wrapped us in hope.

So many years ago, a pond became a solace to my children while an ocean became a solace to my husband and me, making a difficult transition bearable. And so it is this time, nature doing what it does so well if we allow it – providing healing and fostering resilience.

I will always love low tide at Wingaersheek Beach, where heaven meets earth in ocean waves, sand, and sunsets, a tribute to a Creator who calls it ‘Good.’

Low tide at Wingaersheek, where Heaven meets earth in ocean waves, sand, and sunsets.

On 35 Years of Marriage

We get to the Athens Central station early but already it is filled with travelers. We look around at crowds of Greeks on their way to Thessaloniki or other stations along the way to celebrate Nativity.

A train security man, zealous for our safety, periodically walks the yellow line along the platform, presumably shouting at all of us in Greek to not, under any circumstances, walk into that yellow line. We dutifully comply.

We stand and I look at my husband as he leans against a pole, our train tickets in hand. I smile, overwhelmed with a sense of great love for this joy-filled, fun, adventurer that I have married. He grins back and I capture the picture.


It is this picture and event that I remember as I wake up to our 35th wedding anniversary. Though it is six months after the train ride, it captures what this year and our married life has been. This is us – the grin, the train tickets, the sparkle of adventure that we see in each other’s eyes, the luggage, the chaos, the jostling, the unknown.

35 years ago we said “I do” to all of this and so much more. Would any of us say the words “I do” if we knew what was ahead? Perhaps that is the beauty and mystery of marriage – that despite all the mistakes, all the failed marriages, all the hurt that can happen, there still emerges this splendid hope that two people can combine intimacy with individuality and make it.

My faith tells me this is more than a man-made institution, that there is a spiritual mystery beyond understanding that undergirds these fragile vows made in the beauty and unwrinkled days of youth.

Though promised in innocence, they have matured in the fire of life and emerged from that fire scarred but worthy. Worthy of celebrating, worthy of announcing, and worthy of remembering and looking ahead.

It was a year ago that we made the seemingly radical decision to upend our life in Cambridge and step into the unknown. Many of you have followed us on that journey and its unexpected ending. The year has been a paradox with some of the most difficult situations accompanying some of the best. The year mirrors marriage – the good, the hard, the sad, the lonely, the loss, the bargaining, and the acceptance. Unexpected joy and unanticipated grief met together, and we are still reeling in the aftermath.

But today, we forgot all that in a near perfect celebration.

We spent the day with our oldest daughter, an example of the grace that comes with adult children. She is here with her young family and we spent the day in sunshine and the relaxation that only a perfect summer day in Rockport can bring. The wonder and excitement of a three-year-old and the miracle of a seven-month-old punctuating our time with appropriate exclamation marks of joy.

We completed it with a balcony dinner of clams and linguini made by our daughter, accompanied by a perfect white wine.

As the sun set over the Atlantic Ocean, God’s stamp of approval came with the sunset and a sky painted in blues, greens, purples, pinks, and oranges.

This indeed, is us.

On Needing Grace During Transition

We have been back for 10 days and it’s already beginning to feel like Kurdistan was a dream that never really happened. A dream with a few nightmare like qualities, but a dream nevertheless.

The last time we went through a period of transition of this magnitude was when we returned from Egypt with five children, 26 suitcases, and a gorgeous Egyptian Siamese cat called Pharaoh. It was not an easy transition and it was months before we felt settled. I am trying to see this as a different time and situation, but the memories of how incredibly difficult that season of our lives was tend to pop up. I push them down, reminding myself that this is not then, we are not the same people.

Before leaving, we had decided to take July off to debrief and reconnect with family and friends. While it is a good decision, the current reality of no jobs and not knowing where we will be living next is heavy. We live in a culture where your worth is measured against what you do, not who you are. This is an inescapable fact and we have much empathy for those whose circumstances have put them into a place where they are unable to work. Work is a gift, but it should not be an all encompassing identity.

Many people are well meaning but somewhat clueless as to our circumstances. “So glad you are safe!” Said in slightly breathless tones is the default comment. It is kind and it is also somewhat irritating. Particularly because it usually comes from people whose daily lives hardly revolve around our safety. The second comment is “So glad you are home!” Strangely, though in the past this comment would have unnerved me, in this season of transition it feels deeply comforting. Before I left for Kurdistan, I realized that Cambridge had indeed become home and I was grateful. It took such a long time to be willing to attach myself that once I finally let go of my fears and hung my heart in place, a backpack of “where is home” baggage fell off of me and I experienced deep peace.

The back pack is filling once again. Cambridge is no longer home. We packed it up a year ago. Can a place be home when you make a conscious choice to leave it in its entirety? These philosophical questions are hardly useful in the midst of transition, but I ask them anyway.

In all of this I want to beg people to give us grace, to be patient with us during this transition period but I lack the words.

A friend who is transitioning back to the U.S. from Bangladesh recently wrote this and I am grateful to use her words:

It’s the small things about being in America again that feel weird. Enormous stores and all the options in the world.

People saying things like, “it feels like you never left” and feeling totally misunderstood because it feels like a whole new foreign world to you, not like you never left.

There are a ton of little things that give us joy…But there are also just as many things that should feel like home but don’t and that feels disorienting, it hurts.

Please, give grace to the people in your life in transition (of any kind). It feels like living on another planet. We don’t mean to offend or to act strange or cry for no apparent reason. We aren’t sure where the new normal is. But we will get there eventually.” Nicole Walters

Like Nicole, I too ask for grace. We will get there, but we don’t know when.

During this transition time of decisions and indecision, our Rockport cottage is welcoming us with the joy of ocean walks and the beauty of Rockport gardens, to slow days of grandchildren and long evenings of connecting with adult kids.

There is much to decide, and much that needs to happen. We will be in transition mode for a while. After last summer’s major uprooting it will take time to reroot. It will take time to find jobs and a place to live, time to reorient to life on what sometimes feels like a different planet. ⠀

For now, there is the ocean, Rockport, friendship, family, and our marriage. Jobs seem trivial in comparison. We are too fortunate. ⠀

The Importance of Goodbyes

I’m surrounded by suitcases. Each of them are partially full, unfinished puzzles waiting for the right piece to go into the vacant spot. I look at my husband in awe. He does this so well. It’s not just about years of practice – if that was it I would be a master. It’s about the way his mind works, creating order out of chaos and organizing the seemingly unorganizable.

There have been many tears. As opposed to making this decision ourselves and gently removing the bandaid of loss, we are forced into this decision by powers much larger and stronger than we are. The bandaid is ripped off too soon leaving tender skin and a wound.

Making it worse is that no one at the university knows all we gave up to come here. In tears yesterday I called a friend. I could barely talk. “You gave up so much to go,” she said.

“We gave up everything!” I replied. Amazing jobs, an apartment in the perfect location, a car, a church, friendships, retirement funds… the list goes on and on. And we won’t get all of those things back.

In the midst of it, I’m reminded that part of building a raft to get us through this is saying our goodbyes.

We grieve as we say goodbye because we are losing places and people that we love. Each goodbye is a little like death, it’s saying goodbye to permanence and the relationships as we know them. They will change, they have to change. Comfort and hope will have their place, and they are part of the process, but sometimes we need to just sit with the grief before being forced to move on. The global transnational family has developed an amazing capacity to adapt, to move forward, but sometimes we need to just stop where we are and honor that moment.”

From “Honor the Grief, Honor the Goodbye”

And so we are and we have. On Saturday we invited friends to join us for ice cream at our favorite ice cream shop. 25 people gathered and we talked, laughed, told stories and took many, many photos.

Yesterday my husband, who has been going to a local pool every Sunday to informally teach guys to swim, got together for one last time of swimming. The pictures tell an unforgettable story of friendship and fun. These guys have bonded in the water, learning skills and forging cross-cultural friendships. It has been an amazing time for my husband.

During the time he was at the pool, I had my own precious goodbye picnic with nursing staff from the College of Nursing. We drove a half hour from Ranya, up and over hills and through small villages to a perfect picnic spot by a small river. Large trees shaded the area and it was ten degrees cooler than Ranya.

I’ve never known a group of people to love picnics the way Kurdish people love picnics and within minutes large mats were set up and both men and women were setting out large plates of rice and bowls of a bean and meat stew. Smaller plates held onions, bunches of parsley, and fresh green peppers. Chicken was on another plate and with all of this, the requisite huge pieces of naan. We talked, laughed, ate, and took more photos. It was a time where I was able to tell each faculty member why they were special to me and I will not soon forget it.

Now we are on our last day. The puzzle will soon be finished; the suitcases packed and ready to make the two hour trip to our hotel in Erbil. Last night we went to our favorite restaurant and said our goodbyes to our dear Iranian friends, proof that relationships between people do not have to reflect the politics and policies of their countries. Tears came as I hugged all of them. They too have been outsiders here and we have forged a beautiful friendship across what could be insurmountable cultural barriers.

After we left the restaurant, we drove to Lake Dukan a last time with our friend and watched the moonlight create a path across the river real enough to walk on. Lights from cars and houses flickered off the water, reflecting hopes, dreams, and disappointments. We were silent a good bit of the time, from tiredness and from too many thoughts swimming in our brains. Our friendship has been a safe place to land these past months and it was fitting to end the evening by the lake.

Soon our thoughts will turn to what is ahead – a trip to Istanbul to visit my brother and delight in the shadows of minarets and ancient churches. Relaxing on ferry rides and sharing our hearts with our people. Then the United States and job searches, buying a car, a million details to work through, and a wedding to plan. Seeing our kids and reconnecting with dear friends and family, going to our Parish and receiving hugs and the joy of gathering in worship. There is so much good and so much hard in all of this. But first we will say goodbye.

So if you are one of those people, one of those families that is saying goodbye this June, I offer this: Sit with your grief, let it flow, don’t try too hard to analyze, don’t push yourself or others to some ‘right’ response. Just sit with it. Because as the grief comes, so will the comfort.

Honor the Grief, Honor the Goodbye

And for your goodbyes? Say your goodbyes. The goodbyes will hurt, they will smart. Like a wound feels when the salty ocean water washes over it you will brace yourself. But just as the salt in the ocean provides healing so will goodbyes offer healing to your mobile soul.