Lost in the Land of Plenty

A lot has happened since I posted the beautiful piece from my daughter about falling in love with your neighborhood. We moved. Those two words are loaded with weeks of uncertainty, days of planning, and hours of conversation. We took all our earthly belongings out of a seven by ten foot storage unit and began to unpack in our little red house. We unpacked books and set up a kitchen. We made sure we had electricity, gas, and a parking permit so that the difficult Boston parking could be a fraction easier. We carried boxes upstairs and downstairs, unrolled rugs, and filled out a damage claim for a moving company, ruefully shaking our heads at broken glass from a favorite picture and favorite piece of furniture.

We took walks in our neighborhood, marveling at the old gas lamp posts that light our way at night and the church bells that ring on the hour. We hid boxes and hosted our first guests – and all of this in our first week. When you move a lot you know you have to plant quickly and pray that the transplanted roots take in the new soil. In our case, we wanted to make sure we started in the strong soil of hospitality.

The words and recall sound easy and pleasant, but along with that, every day this week I have gotten lost. Every day.

Last week I didn’t get lost. Last week my husband, who has an uncanny sense of direction, was around. If you take him to a city anywhere in the world and allow him to explore for half an hour, you can then blindfold him, turn him around three times, and tell him to find all the land marks within a 10-mile radius. He will be able to take you to said landmarks, even if he doesn’t speak a word of whatever language is spoken in the area. It’s remarkable.

I am not him. If you take me to a place I should know (like Boston) and you turn me around three times with my eyes wide open I will get lost.

So every day this week I got lost. I got lost in a land with English signs posted everywhere. I got lost on street corners and highways, around rotaries, and in grocery stores. I made traffic mistakes and wandered dazed through stores. I even got lost after I asked for directions!

It is uncanny how easily I become lost in the country that holds a legal claim on my life.

It was (of course) in the grocery store where the “lostness” manifest itself most profoundly. I wandered around for many minutes, only to get stuck between pasta and tomato paste. The cereal aisle I would understand. Many of us understand paralysis in the cereal aisle. But pasta? Tomato paste? You can find those things in almost any little grocery store in the world. We have found it in tiny shops in Egypt and tinier shops in Kurdistan. It’s everywhere. So how did I get lost?

Eventually I found my way out, only to get lost going home. To understand the severity of my ‘lost’ syndrome, you need to know that my new home is only a ten minute walk from the grocery store.

Here’s the thing: I did not only get lost – I AM lost. I am lost physically and I am lost metaphorically.

I feel lost in the land of plenty. Lost in choice and direction; lost of ideas and dreams; lost of context and future.

I am lost in grocery stores and I am lost in the online search for meaningful work. I am lost in job descriptions and legalese. I am lost in questions.

As I look for the next right thing, I am achingly, painfully, humorously lost.

I have been in this place before, and I know it can’t be rushed. I know that I need to stop, pull over, and breathe.

So that’s what I’ve done. At one point I pulled over to the side of the road and I took a deep breath. I looked at my phone to determine directions. At the grocery store I headed towards the floral section. There in the midst of the beauty of bouquets and greenery, I took a minute to breathe. Again, as I found myself going around a rotary when I should have been heading to the highway, I had to pull over. Only after I pulled over and took a moment to breathe could I move forward.

This physical, mental, and emotional sense of being lost? It’s going to take some time so I’d best stop and breathe.

As my friend Neil says so well:

home’s the skin we live
in, moving its shedding; you
now new and tender

they say you leave your
heart, i say your lungs; it may
take some time to breathe

From Haiku on Moving – For Friends Newly Moved by Neil Das

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

5 Newton Street – a Love Story

5 Newton Street,

Cambridge, MA 02139

It was ten and a half years ago when I first walked through your front door. I will never forget the day – December 18, and Boston was experiencing the worst winter they had had in five years. Snow was piled high around you – your porch barely passable – and it was so cold.

My oldest daughter, who had moved to Boston a couple of months before, came running out your door, capturing me with one of her famous hugs. She hugs like she means it, like she’ll never, ever let you go and it is bliss.

And then I walked through the white painted door and into your long hallway.

You and me….we were an arranged marriage of sorts. You had good bones and I had a good family, and we grew to love each other.

We met each other, shy at first, neither of us were sure of each other. After all, we found each other on Craigslist, and all I knew was that you claimed to be “sunny and bright”. I was moving from Phoenix, Arizona to a bitter cold Northeast winter. You had no idea how much I needed bright and sunny. That first night I think you sized me up and decided that I would do. Admittedly, it took me a while longer.

I traded in a large, open floor plan, designer paint, and a sparkling, blue pool for a city condo with noisy upstairs neighbors. Our oversized, Arizona furniture cramped your style; our massive candle sticks had to find another home. I fought with you for more space, cursing your small corners, but you didn’t budge.

But we began to live together and slowly, like an arranged marriage, I began to love you.

I began to love your location, so close to everything! With you I could walk everywhere! Grocery store, pharmacy, subway – even the beautiful Charles River with its banks that changed with the seasons. I painted your walls and hung pictures that made you shine. I draped white lights on your porch, a bright beacon in the sometimes dark nights of life. I plumped pillows on couches and put furniture in your rooms.

And we began to live, really live within your walls. You began to know our family and your halls and walls heard our laughter and held our tears. Thanksgivings, Christmases, and Easter celebrations brought people from all over the world into your safety and joy. We played games and discussed politics; dyed Easter eggs and carved pumpkins; brought Christmas trees from the Boston Tree Company, and lit candles amidst holiday sparkle. You gave space for graduation celebrations and expanded as our family grew.

It wasn’t all sparkle. You heard sadness and witnessed anger; sometimes our tears were more than we could bear and you held us in safety when we couldn’t let the wider world know what was going on. But still, you and we held on.

And now, we are taking you – our home – and turning you back into a house. If I wasn’t so busy, and if I didn’t know that this next step is a good and important one, it would break me.

You, with your old wood floors and your non updated bathrooms, hold the magic of Home. And you are being stripped of that magic by me – your nomadic love.

I’m so sorry. You’ve been so good to us. You have loved us well through over ten years of life. You have been a place of safety, joy, and laughter.

Your walls will hold our family stories forever and, like a dear and loyal friend, keep them safe.

Your windows bear the marks of our noses, pressed against them looking out onto the world.

Your hallway and stairwell will echo our footsteps, like ghosts coming back for one last look.

And your porch? Your porch will carry the magic of late summer night laughter and conversation, the sounds of the city a musical background.

You have loved us well dear house. You have loved us well.

And now, I say goodbye. May the joy and grace that has held us be passed on to those coming through your doors.

Goodbye 5 Newton. I will always love you.

That Magic Word – Home

My younger daughter was recently in Toronto at the wedding of a friend. On return she had some difficulty with her ticket and had to go early to the airport in order to clear it up. As she was talking to a woman in security, she said “I just want to get home.”

Responding with wisdom, empathy, and an accent that indicated she knew the truth of her words, she said: “Somehow I understand that magic word – ‘Home’”

Throughout childhood we hear this word, used in various ways and forms.

Are we home yet?”

“How long until we get home?”

“I can’t wait to get home!”

“I hate leaving home.”

“It’s so good to be home!”

And then adulthood comes, and home becomes more complicated even if you don’t mean it to be. Is home where you grew up? Where your parents live? Where you now live? Where you are raising your family, or all of those combined?

You return home and home has changed, as have you. You leave, unsettled and discombobulated, happy to be leaving and sad that you are happy.

As life moves on, you become the one responsible for creating home, and in that space, home sometimes loses its purity and its magic. When we were little, magic and home happened. When we’re big, someone has to create it. Yet somehow along the way, most of us figure that out. We learn that home and what Wendell Berry calls “membership” are an incredible privilege, and we grow to protect that privilege. We learn that our connection to place matters, and our keeping of that place is vital for mental and physical health. Home may no longer feel like magic, but it has become so much more.

It is our anchor in a world that is fickle and our bridge that equips us to cross over to the outside.

Home. That place where we learn our first stories, where we lose teeth and grow inches, where we play and fight with siblings and grow nostalgic over time. For some, it is geographic; for others it is people, memories, and events that span the globe.

And one thing is sure–there is never more magic in the word then when we’ve been away, and we get to go back.

Home wasn’t a set house, or a single town on a map. It was wherever the people who loved you were, whenever you were together. Not a place, but a moment, and then another, building on each other like bricks to create a solid shelter that you take with you for your entire life, wherever you may go.”*

*Sarah Dessen, What Happened to Goodbye

If You Had a Few Weeks to Live, Where Would You Go?

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If you had a few weeks to live, where would you go?

A few years ago, writer Roger Cohen asked this question in an opinion piece in the New York Times called “In Search of Home.” He talked about the “landscape of childhood” that place of “unfiltered experience, of things felt rather than thought through, of the world in its beauty absorbed before it is understood, of patterns and sounds that lodge themselves in some indelible place in the psyche and call out across the years.”*

There are places in our world that have to take us in, and then there are those places of our greatest connection and comfort. They are often two completely different places.

We are living in a time of unprecedented loneliness; a time where millions feel like outsiders but rarely express those feelings. Cohen says that if you dig in to the underlying cause of depression in many people, you will discover that “their distress at some level is linked to a sense of not fitting in, an anxiety about belonging: displacement anguish.” 

Writer James Wood calls this “contemporary homelessness” the issue of our time. The immigrant, the refugee, the expat, the third culture kid, the military kid, the military family, the diplomat, the person who moves coast to coast and back again in the same country – all of us live in places where home is hard to define, perhaps even harder to feel.

So, if you had a few weeks to live, where would you go? Merely asking the question can make one anxious. How can I pick one place? And yet, when James Wood asked Christopher Hitchens where he would go if he had a few weeks to live, Mr. Hitchens did not hestitate. He immediately said it would be his childhood home. This is one of the things that distinguishes those raised in one place to those raised in many: our responses, not only to the question of where is home, but to other, more abstract questions about place and connection to place.

My response reflects a life lived between. 

I would book a flight to my places – Egypt and Pakistan. I would take a Felucca ride on the Nile River on a late June afternoon, where breezes are slow in coming but the air is cool and laden with jasmine. I would sit on my friend Marty’s balcony and drink coffee or one of her famous mango smoothies. I would book a room at the Marriott Hotel overlooking the gardens. I would sit outside until late at night, sipping a fresh lime and soda, listening to the sounds of the city from the cocoon of a beautiful garden. Then I would pack my bags, trading the sound of palms swaying for the sound of pine trees in the mountains of Murree. I would visit the school in Pakistan that shaped me, and whisper words of gratitude.

I would move on to Sindh where dust-colored bouganvillea crawl up old brick houses. I would visit dear friends and eat curry until my nose runs. I would sit on the floor in a hot church service, ceiling fans whirring above me, and belt out Punjabi songs of worship. I would sing loud and not care if I got the words wrong. I would catch a flight to Karachi and go to Hawkes Bay for a day and bargain at Bohri Bazaar for brightly colored shalwar and chemise outfits that I don’t need. I would say my goodbyes to a country that profoundly shaped who I am and what I love.

I would arrive in the United States at Terminal E, exhausted but glowing with the joy of life.  I would go to Rockport where I would gather my kids and others I love together at Emerson Inn. We would watch the sun rise over the rocky coast, and then it would be over. I will have said my goodbyes.

I laugh as I write this. Christopher Hitchens response was short and pointed “No, I’d go to Dartmoor, without a doubt.” Dartmoor was the landscape of his childhood. But even when given a limited time period, I can’t pick just one place. I still choose to live between.At the deepest core, I am a nomad who can’t contain the worlds within, nor would I want to. The exercise shows me that I would not choose any other life or any other way, and my heart fills with gratitude. I am too fortunate.


I, like many of this era, am a nomad rich with diverse experiences, yet will never be able to collect all of my place and people-specific memories together in one place, in one time. Saudade: a song for the modern soul.- Karen Noiva


HOW ABOUT YOU? IF YOU HAD A FEW WEEKS LEFT TO LIVE, WHERE WOULD YOU GO?

*In Search of Home by Roger Cohen

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