Murree Memories Part 2 – A Guest Post

Murree Memories (Part 2)

My friend Jason continues his Murree Memories in today’s post. For those of you who missed last week’s post on Murree take a look here.

I’ve been back to Murree several times in the past few years, and each of these visits has given rise to mixed emotions.   Sadly, the old feel of the place is gone.  It’s no longer an out-of-the-way resort town moving at a leisurely pace.  The town has been grossly overdeveloped.  Innumerable hotels, all uniformly ugly, are built over the hillsides to accommodate the influx of domestic tourists who now come in great numbers from the populous and bustling cities down country.  Traffic jams choke the roads.  Many of the old buildings remain, but are now either derelict or crowded about on all sides by the new grotesque tourist hives.  A garish Post Office has replaced the old building, and an enormous new hotel towers behind it.  The old colonial air is much fainter now.  Public waste bins, painted hopefully with the words “Use Me,” stand overflowing and unattended.

And yet I found some features of the place had the power to cheer and still charm me.  “Tikka Alley,” the short and narrow street famous for its barbecued fare, remains much as it did decades ago.  Skinned chickens and cuts of beef and mutton are hung outside the eatery doors, then skewered and grilled above open coals.  Aromatic curried smoke fills the alleyway, burning the eyes and arousing the appetite.

In Murree, as elsewhere in Pakistan, the warmth of many common people is endearing.  Nearly every “Asalaam aleikum” I’ve said is matched with a cheerful “Waleikum asalaam.”  Striking up friendly conversations with shopkeepers remains easy, and it seems natural that in a few minutes they often freely share details about their families and sometimes invite the stranger-become-friend home for a meal.

On one visit to Murree I took high tea at Sam’s Restaurant, an old Mall landmark, which I suspect may be dated to British days.  The confectionery came on fancy tiered serving trays.  The elderly waiter backed away from the table deferentially. I hoped it was merely an act of simple respect and hospitality, and not something learned from an uncle who’d served the Raj and been forced to bow and scrape in the presence of the foreign overlords.  In any case, the gesture was touching.

(In the late 1950s and ‘60s Sam’s hosted dance competitions held to swing music.  My older brother tells me that the pleasing strains of the horns wafted across the Mall and could be heard during Evening Prayer held at Holy Trinity.  The “worldly” music was of concern to the congregation’s more mature members; to the youth it was like the whiff of some forbidden intoxicant—of which they dared not partake.)

In 2007 I spent a few days in Murree.  I was working elsewhere in the country and needed a getaway weekend.  The changes I witnessed since my previous visit several years before were shocking.  The town was almost unrecognizable in places.  Unhappy with the haphazard overdevelopment and throngs of noisy tourists, I left feeling dispirited.

Still, over the next couple of years I found myself back in Murree a few more times.  In my walks down the Mall I was barely irked by the cacophonous vacationers.  How could I begrudge them a few days of fun in their own country?  I made an unplanned visit to the dorm room I occupied when I started boarding school in first grade.  One walk took me past one of my family’s old rented homes, now in a state of terrible disrepair.  I met and spoke to my old childhood playmate, still living next door, and reflected on the many disparities between his life and mine.

Murree figures prominently in my memory, integral to innumerable experiences. Murree as a place gave character to those experiences, and in so doing helped form my character.

In Murree I learned how to speak and read and write.  I learned of the world outside and the neighbor next door. Life in Murree, more than anywhere else, taught me the value of family and community, of loneliness and camaraderie, and of the deep spiritual needs and capacities we all have.  Murree taught me of the dissonance and wonders of cross-cultural interactions, and something of what it means to have a good earthly home and yet see that home as transient.

I left Murree the last time thinking, with a little melancholy, that the dear old place has been overtaken by events.  The innocent halcyon days—if they ever existed—are gone.  Murree too is caught in the eddying currents of troublous modern times—unchecked population growth, political instability, rising prices, a poor economy, power shortages, and an uncertain, unpromising future.

I thought too, on that occasion, of how St Paul was keen to impress upon the readers of his epistles that the new life brought us in Jesus Christ supersedes past experiences and old sources of identity—ethnicity, tribe, culture, religion, nationality, and place.  These truths first came to me in a significant way while in Murree in my youth.  As I departed the last time I felt ambivalent.  I was glad I’d been able to visit again,sorry I couldn’t stay longer.

As I left I remembered Paul’s words to the Philippians:  “Our citizenship is in heaven.”  Murree helped teach me that, too.

Thanks, Murree.  I’ll always be in your debt.  And you’ll always be one of my home towns.

Murree Memories – A Guest Post

Murree Memories (Part 1) is a guest post by a childhood friend – Jason. Jason was born in Pakistan in the mid-1960s to American parents who worked in the central part of the country.  Jason spent most of his grade school and junior high years in Pakistan.  In adulthood he has returned to the South Asian country to help with earthquake recovery and healthcare projects.

It is a fitting post for ten years ago on August 5 there was a terrorist attack against our boarding school in Murree leaving 6 dead and many more wounded. It deeply affected people associated with the school and the community. Jason takes us to Murree through pictures and words put together like poetry. Enjoy a look into this unique place that brings back so many memories.

Like a few hundred other children over the past five-plus decades, I spent a number of my growing-up years in a boarding school in the alpine Murree Hills of northern Pakistan.  Little did I realize at the time how the place would figure in my development, not so much academically, socially, or spiritually, but how it would give me a sense of place.

The town of Murree was established in the early 1850s as a “hill station” by and for the British Raj.  Here, at 7,000 feet, the salubrious climate provided the colonial masters respite from the repressive heat of the Indian plains.  Murree came to be an administrative center of British India during the long summer months.  Several clubs and societies provided entertaining social diversions.  Well-dressed Britons attended plays and dances, played croquet on lush lawns, ate cucumber sandwiches and scones with their tea.  Social standing was maintained with a promenade down the Mall, and especially viz a viz the Indians—the street was off-limits to the native population.

Of course Murree changed after Independence in 1947.  And yet it seemed the town was reluctant to shake off many of the trappings from colonial days.  In particular the names of buildings and roads were slow to lose their British titles.  In the 1970s, when I spent most of my childhood in Murree, the charm of bygone British days was still poignant.  My family lived in Dingley Dell, Braemar House, and the improbably named Utopia House.  (My brother was born in Utopia and says “It’s been downhill ever since.”)  Friends lived in Forest Dell, Bexley House, Marsden, and Park House.

En route to worship at Holy Trinity Church we walked down Mall Road past shops selling walking sticks and Golden Syrup.  A quaint, aesthetically pleasing General Post Office building dominated the intersection at the center of town.  The square steeple of Holy Trinity loomed above the shops halfway down the Mall.

Blogger’s Note: Murree more than any other physical location gave many of us a sense of ‘place’, of belonging and connection. Paul Tournier, a noted Swiss psychiatrist speaks of place – searching for place, finding place, enjoying and occupying place and then being willing to move on to the next place. Murree was the beginning of that circle of life.

(Stay tuned for Part 2 where Jason will give us more word pictures and detail. )

So.Many.Stories – The Trunk that Traveled the World

Today’s lovely post comes from Annelies Kanis. Annelies is a fellow third culture kid and we share Murree as a common denominator, all be it a generation apart! In this post she looks at a piece of luggage that has been on the journey with her. Read on….

The trunk that traveled the world now sits in our bedroom. It’s retired. It holds extra pillows for kid’s sleepovers, a sleeping bag that once went up the Kilimanjaro and posters from museums that will never find a spot on the wall, but that I can’t bear to throw out.

The trunk is old. I’m guessing it was made around the 1920’s, but maybe that’s just the period that I would like it to be from. A time when women had just gained their rights and there was a world for them to discover. And when they did, they packed all their lovely dresses into this trunk and danced the night away in exotic destinations.

When my parents moved to Pakistan to work with Afghan refugees in 1985, they needed trunks to carry our belongings. I was nine, ready for a big adventure and ready to discover the world. Not many people move half way across the world with two kids, a blond Labrador and a lot of stuff. Most people go away on trips for a few weeks. They pack a bag and credit card for the things they forgot to pack. My parents had lived in Bangladesh years before and knew exactly what they’d miss. And those were the things they wanted to take along; items that didn’t fit into suitcases or backpacks. But where do you get trunks if people don’t use them anymore?

Before we left, my dad was director of a nursing home. He knew a few other directors and asked them whether they had trunks up in their attics; trunks that were long forgotten, much like the trips they’d made. Eight trunks came our way and on a sunny day my dad and a friend stenciled our names on them and gave each a number. A few months later they were packed and shipped. And after a rather long stay in customs in Karachi (and a very angry father), they arrived in Peshawar with most of our things intact. We were excited and happy to see all the things we’d packed away months before.

Then came March, and my sister and I went to boarding school. Two of the trunks were packed carefully with all the items on the boarding list. Everything had my name on it and all the clothes were clean and whole. We could never take all the toys we wanted, there were restrictions, so it was carefully determined which toy got to come along. The trunks made the trip up the hill to Murree with us and lived in the attic of the hostel once we’d unpacked. I have vivid memories of 8 girls in a room unpacking all their trunks at the same time. I don’t remember who carried the trunks up to the attic, but I do remember the excitement of seeing each other and later the many tears on that first night away from home. I never cried, I loved boarding. But it’s tough hearing all your friends sob themselves to sleep.

The excitement returned at the end of term, when our trunks came down the stairs from the attic and we literally stuffed all our things in them, ready to go home.

After three years of travel between home in Peshawar and school in Murree, the trunks went back to the Netherlands, filled with Afghan carpets, gifts for family and friends and many memories. My parents still have one or two and a drum filled with Pakistani and Afghan clothing.

I don’t think my trunk will ever travel again. While I plan on travel, I don’t plan on moving overseas and I now prefer Samsonite. And though we want to redecorate our bedroom and the trunk doesn’t fit into the scheme, it is staying. Not for it’s beauty, but for the stories it tells.

Annelies Kanis works as director of programmes at an NGO for children in the Netherlands and developing countries. She lives in Leiden with her two sons and husband. Annelies holds a master’s degree in cultural anthropology from Leiden University and has lived in Pakistan, New York City and Zambia.  

For more on the So.Many.Stories project click here.

The Train Party

In May of last year the International Business Times wrote an article marking the 150th anniversary of the railway system in what is now Pakistan.

The opening paragraph reads as follows:

On May 13th, 1861 the first engine left the station in Karachi to an astonished crowd.  One of a kind in the region, locals were shocked as John Brunton, the Chief Engineer of the Karachi-Kotri Railway, drove the steam locomotive for its first trial.

The Karachi natives were astounded.  I drove the engine myself of course at slow speed – the natives thronging all around, I was fearful of some accident.  At last I thought I should frighten them away, so I blew the engine steam whistle loudly.  Instantly, they all rushed back from the ‘Demon’ falling over one another.

I smiled as I read the article, for train travel and my childhood go hand in hand.  Some of my earliest memories include trains and the rhythmic sound of train engines chugging their way through the country side of Pakistan. To this day, when I close my eyes on the subway in the morning en route to my job in an ugly, institutional grey building in the heart of Boston, the rhythm of the train transports me back to another time and another place.

By the time my parents arrived in Pakistan in 1954 train travel was well established and the most common way to get from place to place in the country. It was safe, it was cheap and it was relatively comfortable.

Those of us who lived far away from the school, in the southern areas of Pakistan, used trains as the means of transportation to the school. Earlier than I can remember it was decided that it would be wiser to band together and send a couple of chaperones with all the school-age children on a train to the train station at Rawalpindi. This organized system would make sure that every parent did not have to make the long trip. On arrival, the school would send the solid army-green school bus, bearing the name and emblem Murree Christian School, to the station to transport us the remaining journey to the school. This trip was affectionately called “The Train Party” and it was only later in life that I found out how difficult this could be for the parent chaperons.

My time to join my older siblings on this “Train Party” came at the tender age of seven, during the latter half of first grade.  I had heard it mentioned so many times that the images in my mind had taken over.  A party, games, food, and most of all friends!  “What could be better?” I thought!  I dreamt of the day that I would get to go and join the ranks of missionaries children heading off to Murree Christian School.  It was a rite of passage – it was the “Train Party”.  We would arrive at the station with trunks, small carry cases, and bisters, large green canvas carriers that held all our bedding. Along with this would be the food our moms had lovingly hand prepared and packed for us, no doubt aching as they packed sandwiches, cookies and carrot sticks, knowing they were sending us far away, where they would not be a part of our daily life.

I remember standing nervously with my older brothers, aware that this was a big moment and already feeling a shyness come over me in relation to these brothers who I lived with, played with, ate with and fought with. I somehow knew that the train party would usher us into a world where it wasn’t always easy to acknowledge siblings, where home and sibling connection grew farther with each station and each rhythmic sound of the wheels on the track.

The “party” would begin in Hyderabad, making stops along the way picking up children of various ages and sizes from their winter homes, all with the ultimate destination of boarding school. The trains snaked their way from the desert to the lush Punjab, ultimately arriving at the busy Rawalpindi station. “The Ranks” were a group of motley and assorted children of missionaries from all over the world – Meg, Lizzie and David from the UK; Nancy, David, Jonathan from Atlanta, Georgia; Bill, Paul, Phil and Tim – 4 boys from the Midwest with a mother who I loved and of whom legends are made; Alberteen Vanderveen and others from Holland, and the list went on.

The train party was not without its significant moments.

“Help, someone’s lost a thumb” was the cry that rang out through the compartments one time when I was in elementary school. We all looked in horror at our own, now precious, thumbs. Evidently the Someone had been on the top bunk of the compartment, where small fans whirred dangerously close to heads to keep air circulating. She had accidentally reached up during a shaky point in the normally smooth ride and the result was the tip of a thumb off and a lot of blood flowing, making the accident far worse than it was.

A thumb was not the only thing lost as the train sped its way up-country through brown desert and green fields. Some things were lost intentionally, like hardboiled eggs thrown out the window; other things were lost unintentionally, like sleeping bags, and one time we almost lost Lizzie Hover as she leaned out the window so far that we had to pull her back inside to the safety of the compartment.

The 18-22 hour train ride provided much time for catching up with our friends, all who had spent their winters in equally isolated locations throughout the country.

Stops at stations were opportunities to buy hot tea, purris and halwa. Station food tasted to us like gourmet cuisine. Shouts of “Chai, chai, garam chai” (Tea, Tea, Hot tea!) and “Undae, Undae, Garam Undae” (Eggs, Eggs, Hot Eggs!) were heard at every station, promising food that was tastier than the food at the richest of homes.

The trip ended just as it became almost unbearable for the adult chaperones. At that point we were unloaded with baggage only to be loaded on the school bus and make our way the last two hours of the journey to Murree, 7500 feet above sea level, and begin the spring boarding term.

The first evening was always a combination of chaos and excitement as trunks and bisters found their way to our bedrooms and unpacking began. We were allowed bedtimes a bit later than the normal, strictly enforced, hours and we began to claim drawers, dressers and beds. I don’t remember a lot of fighting over this process. Perhaps it was because it was the beginning and always exciting to be together again. The night ended with a meeting in the apartment of a houseparent, closing with prayer as we traipsed to our rooms, ready at this point for a nights sleep in a real bed on solid ground instead of the small bunk of a moving train.

It never failed that I would wake up early the next morning, disoriented as soon as I opened my eyes to my surroundings, not knowing where or who I was. As I slowly woke to my reality, tears would begin to fall. It wasn’t that I was unhappy being there as much as I realized that I had left the safety of the unconditional love of parents and home and was in a place where my daily world was those as immature as I. It was a realization that as much as I loved her, my substitute mother for the next three months would be a houseparent who had many others to care for, all away from the moms who had birthed us, all needy of her love, care and patience.

As I wept silently, tears flowing, it’s as though an invisible strength would enter me. As though God himself was reaching to me through my tears whispering the words “I am here, I am here for you”. Those words whispered in the early morning hours were stronger than any Biblical text and rooted themselves deep in my sub-conscious giving me strength to get up and begin the new semester.

Guest Post: “But God Moments”

Every time I read a “But God…” verse in the Bible I am startled. I’ll be reading about something horrible, or evil, or sad, or something just plain wrong, and then out of nowhere comes a “But God….” moment.  Like a good movie plot, I know something has changed, the story is taking an unexpected turn.

This post by Sophie at Little Gumnut grabbed my heart. May you enjoy this today and find your “But God” moments, those moments where God steps in and the plot changes.


I woke up this morning to early morning mist clinging round the buildings, bushes and trees and I sighed with happiness.  It might not seem the best weather to you but that mist brings back memories of Murree monsoon weather, of my beloved Himalayas, of summer holidays and autumn back to school when Mum was up in the hills with us for the summer.  In fact just looking at that mist I am transported back to sitting on my bed in the house in Ospring, reading a book with a hot cup of coffee and watching rain drift gently down outside.

I needed that moment this week, I needed that feeling of security, that reminder of my childhood.

We lost our house and car keys on Saturday.  The only set that work for either house or car.  Mmmhmmm, inconvenient to say the least.  Frustrating might be another word.  Panic inducing at times.  And they’ve stayed lost for four and a half days.  We’ve hunted high and low and cleaned cupboards that haven’t seen the clean side of a jay cloth since we moved in a year ago.  (Shameful, but true.)

It’s perhaps not just the keys being lost that is the big deal but I have been struggling with homesickness and wondering what the purpose of us being here, on the other side of the world, when things aren’t always easy and life doesn’t just flow naturally…… Read more here at Little Gumnut Blogspot

Would love to hear your “But God…” stories! Share them at Sophie’s blog or here or both!

Reader Response: Tea and Soul Care

Tea matters
. The responses from readers on tea gave personal pictures from Laos to Pakistan to South Africa of what tea means and why tea matters. All the comments were rich with memory and feeling, but I’ve picked one that spoke to my soul today. It’s one of the reasons I love blogging – I am the recipient of wisdom and challenges through reader comments. I have turned this one comment into a post and pray that it will speak to your soul the way it spoke to mine.“Tea and Soul Care”  is penned by Ruthie McCurry Dutton, a former class mate from Murree. We reconnected this past year through Facebook and blogging and it makes me want to see her again in person and share a cup of tea.  Ruthie has lived a nomadic life and offers a glimpse of her life in this piece.

Tea–my “go-to” for every occasion and metaphor for qualities that I find important. Tea meant comfort and happiness in my early memories of Pakistan: sweet and milky, sitting in my beloved nanny’s lap; a strong brew capping off my first exciting day at boarding school; the mad rush at break, when I was finally old enough to get my tea from the hole-in-the-wall stall across the road.

As a newly married bride, my mother-in-law introduced me to ritual and reverence through the very rare occasions when we used her exquisite collection of bone china cups. We carefully warmed the pot while boiling the water. We added just the right amount of leaves and waited patiently for it to steep. Aaaah….the perfect cup.

When life and ministry took me to the frontiers of Laos, I traded delicate cups for floral- patterned china mugs each one unique. They reminded me to look for the beauty all around me—be it the landscape or in the variety of people with whom I shared a cup. Each person and scene had a beauty of their own to be savored and appreciated.

In my newly nomadic life, a delicate china mug accompanies me. I love sipping from it as I share the pre-dawn hours with Jesus. This delicate mug, so easily chipped, reminds me of the importance of soul care. Each reverent sip is an in-pouring of the Holy Spirit, a source of strength for what my day brings. Now, instead of my beloved nanny, I feel the warm embrace of Abba Father.

Crossing both the globe and the span of time tea remains my constant companion, its symbolism and meaning growing and changing. For today it means warmth and comfort, sacred ritual, unique beauty, and God’s goodness. Life is richer over a cup of tea.

Old Hymns, Timeless Truths

He left his Father’s throne above
(so free, so infinite his grace!),
emptied himself of all but love,
and bled for Adam’s helpless race.
‘Tis mercy all, immense and free,
for O my God, it found out me!

~C Wesley, 1739

These words were recently posted by a fellow third culture kid and friend from Murree. Despite generational gaps one simple verse evoked distinct memories from many of us who attended Murree. It was a reminder that there are those distinctly “Murree” memories that don’t respect place or time, but rise up and must be acknowledged –  sometimes with tears, other times with anger, still others with laughter, but mostly with gratefulness and joy for a heritage, not perfect but lasting.

A distinctly Murree memory comes through old hymns and memories of singing these hymns with our clear voices of childhood.We sang them in chapel held every Friday at Murree Christian School, we sang them at Sunday night “Singspiration” and we sang them on summer Sundays at Holy Trinity Church.

Holy Trinity Church on the winding Mall Road in Murree was our place of worship during the summer months in Pakistan. It was at Holy Trinity where missionaries and more would congregate from all over the country, sharing communion despite doctrinal differences over sprinkling or immersion, predestination and free will. While the outside mall road had all the noises of a busy commercial area in Pakistan from vendors selling seasonal flowers to small children hawking their wares, inside the gates of Holy Trinity we were a culture removed. For a child the inside of the church seemed huge with its enormous vaulted ceilings and tall stained glass windows. Plaques lined the walls in memory of people who had come before us. Men who had served in the British Army and had lost their lives were forever memorialized through the walls of Holy Trinity. Occasionally there was a plaque that in just a few words told the story of a small child dying far before their time. Holy Trinity was a church that was steeped in tradition and memory.

On Sundays the entire community would gather and sing out of old hymnals while being led in worship by any of a number of the well-qualified missionaries who were escaping the heat of the southern parts of Pakistan through a break in the beauty that was Murree Hills. What amazes me in all the years since that time is the power of the words in these hymns. The theological truths proclaimed are life-sustaining and the words never grow old.

Consider this song, written in 1917 by Frederick M. Lehman:

The love of God is greater far
Than tongue or pen can ever tell;
It goes beyond the highest star,
And reaches to the lowest hell;
The guilty pair, bowed down with care,
God gave His Son to win;
His erring child He reconciled,
And pardoned from his sin.

Or this, written in 1864 by a 16-year-old named William Featherstone:

My Jesus, I love Thee, I know Thou art mine;
For Thee all the follies of sin I resign.
My gracious Redeemer, my Savior art Thou;
If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.

And so many more…Great is Thy Faithfulness, I am not Skilled to Understand, A Mighty Fortress is Our God….the words would resonate to the rafters, heard even during thunderous monsoon rains that came like clockwork every summer.

During the times in my life when I have been farthest from acknowledging or understanding any truth, these words were still in my memory. When words are in your memory, they have a greater chance of winding their way into your heart. I am convinced that these words, sung at one time with innocence, gusto, and minimal understanding find their way into a capsule of grace in our minds, a capsule that opens later in life as we sit, spent, knowing that we can’t do it on our own, but the One spoken of in these hymns can do it.

A comment from an old friend from Murree expressed my feelings particularly well:

“I don’t know what it is about the 5th decade of life, but I find the old words often coming to mind as I take my long drive along Pacific Coast Highway each day… Do you remember when we were young – I think it was particularly during the “preparing for evacuation years” we heard stories about how it was important to memorize verses incase we were ever captured and held prisoner. I wonder if other children heard such stories, and I don’t know the source. But it is true, those songs are coded into our brains. The words are rich. The memories strong.” (Susan Pietsch-Escueta)

What is coded into your brain in a capsule of grace providing rich memories, theological grounding, and reminders of truth? 

Bloggers Note: Holy Trinity also held some not so sacred memories: sneaking out of the service on Sunday nights to go to buy soft serve ice cream cones at a machine nearby (we had just enough time to sneak, eat, enjoy, and come back – missing the sermon but loudly participating in the hymns) and finding marijuana in the church yard during junior high. But those memories are for a not so sacred blog post!

Goodbye~ God Be With You!

The A train serves JFK Airport via the Howard ...

We entered into New York’s JFK airport with a plane full of other passengers yesterday. While we headed to the line that bore the banner “US Citizens”, a majority of the passengers on the plane headed to one of the other two lines: Residents or Visitors, located farther down in the large impersonal immigration area.

We had said goodbye the evening before to my daughter and oldest son, who is staying on with his sister in Cairo for the next couple of weeks. We held each other tightly and didn’t want to let go – I know we both wish that we lived closer. Just as my mom would love to pop over for a cup of tea to my house without planning, so would I love to grab tea or coffee with my oldest daughter spontaneously, without purchasing a plane ticket.  How I have missed through the years and many goodbyes I have said that the origin of the word “goodbye” comes from “God be with you” is a mystery, but miss it I did. This changes the word completely for me, for to say “God be with you” is at the heart of my world and to say “Goodbye” to my kids with that meaning in mind is a comfort to my ‘mom’ heart.

The collective goodbyes represented in the large immigration room were many. We were all strangers to each other so who knows the scope of the stories and goodbyes that were present, but knowing many immigrants, all with amazing and poignant life stories, allowed me to understand that there was far more beneath that which is visible, there is so much more beyond the surface.  Some were permanent residents of the US, probably visiting relatives in Cairo and now back home. Others were newcomers to the US and the slightly confused looks on their faces and making their way to the wrong lines gave away their confusion and lack of familiarity with the “rules”.

Those of you who read this blog are no stranger to goodbyes. Perhaps your first goodbyes were said at the young age of six or seven as you went to boarding school for the first time, brave on the surface but your stomach knotting inside as you passed through that boarding school “rite of passage” for the first time. Others may have said your first goodbyes in high school, going back to your passport country to complete school to compete successfully in the country of your parents. For others it was when you got married and left your family home, entering into a new world with either your in-laws or a world apart with your new husband who could hardly grow a beard, so young was he.

Regardless of when it was, the feelings of nervous stomach and throat catching are universal. It’s the butterflies and the uneasy energy that seem to take over, and the tears that remain unshed, stored up for a more private time to be poured out like water when you are parched.

And today we say goodbye to 2011 – a different kind of goodbye to be sure, but some of the same elements of joys, regrets, losses and gains, sorrows and happiness. In August I wrote a post on saying goodbye to my daughter, Stefanie as she went off to college for the first time. I am posting it here again as I think of the goodbyes that have been said throughout the year and may be remembered today – It is the bittersweet taste of that word “Goodbye!”. As you close out 2011 and open your heart to 2012 may your goodbyes have the sweetness of “God be with you!”

August 2011 – The Bittersweet Taste of the Words Goodbye

We’re up early. While the rest of the house is sleeping our college-bound girl is doing the last-minute packing, grabbing a winter coat she reasonably forgot given the 89 degrees and 90% humidity of our August morning, and trying to calm her stomach. And though I had not intended to do a blog post as I think on those bittersweet words “Goodbye” I had to reflect.

Those of you who are third culture kids or international travelers know these words all too well. The most poignant memory by far in my life comes from a long ago time when at six years old with my favorite doll in my arms I was driven with older brothers to the Hyderabad train station to catch a train that would take me 800 miles to Rawalpindi station where a large army-green bus would pick us up and take us the remaining 2 hour journey up to our boarding school in the hill station of Murree. The tears flowed without embarrassment – I was, of course, only six. Even after all these years the bitter taste of goodbye and all that meant for me is a sweet and hard memory. The hardest part for my mother came when the train rolled away. At that point her tears fell, and mine stopped. I was with friends. As suddenly as the train left the station, my world was immersed in six-year-old imagination and friendship.

That was the first of more goodbyes than I could possibly count. Whoever first coined the phrase “bittersweet” had tremendous insight. For we know that usually what is beyond will be wonderful for the person to whom we are saying goodbye. But the present brings up that all-too familiar knot in the stomach – a mixture of pain, sadness and nervousness. What I remember even more than goodbye was the memory of waking up the next morning in an unfamiliar bed in complete confusion until I remembered that this was boarding. I had left home. Mom was not there. The hot tears that fell on my six-year-old face were accompanied by a clear whisper – “No, you’re not home – but I am with you. I will be with you”.  I knew without a shadow of a doubt that this was indeed the voice of God himself. And those words were stronger than any verse of scripture or any theological doctrine could be.

Those are the words I hope each of my children hear as they say their very frequent goodbyes. Those are the words I hope Stef wakes up to tomorrow morning.

Those are the words I wish for you as you close out 2011 and move into 2012. God be with you!

Crossing the Athletic Line

Murree was not kind to children who could not cross the “Athletic Line”. Sports played a big role in both the school community as well as “popularity potential”. In the fall, when leaves were changing from green to gold there was field hockey for the girls and flag football for the guys. As November came, and the cold stone classrooms held the smell of kerosene from tiny heaters working overtime to offer at least a bit of heat, athletes kept warm on the sports fields playing soccer. And in the spring basketball teams for both girls and boys were formed.

I could not cross the athletic line. From the time I could remember, whether the game was Capture the Flag or Steal the Bacon, I was last to be picked for any team. I dreaded standing in line and waiting…waiting…waiting as girls and boys were one by one picked to join a team. It inevitably came down to one or two of us and the silent prayer “Please God, let them pick me, don’t let me be last, not this time God…”. And sometimes that prayer was answered, although the older I got the more I realized there were most probably competing prayers prayed in those dreadful moments and wondered how God decided the outcome. Was it like picking a daisy and pulling off the petals the way a preteen decides whether the boy in question “loves me or loves me not?”.

Sometimes my prayer was answered. Other times the person standing with me was picked and I could hear the audible sigh the minute their name was called. I dared not glance up to see their look of pity as they awkwardly ran to take their place. It is easy to both write and laugh about this now. To my knowledge, no matter how good anyone at Murree was at sports, none went on to compete professionally. In other words, they were good, but they weren’t that good. Their achievements were limited to our small school “nestled ‘neath the great Himalayas” and faded black and white photos showing teams lined up in green and white uniforms are all that’s left of their athletic prowess.

There was one time when I made it on to the girls soccer team. In my junior year of high school, the Walsh girls were unable to attend an inter-school tournament at the end of the semester as they lived in Bangladesh and had already booked flights back home. The Walsh girls served as a reminder that life was not fair. They were beautiful, smart, kind, and athletic, capturing the imagination of every boy at Murree and the envy of many of us girls. That year, I got to take their place on the soccer field and go to the tournament and play my hardest. The trade was unfair.

All of this was years ago, and is easy to laugh and write about now, but at the time it held all the pain of adolescent angst. What is interesting about this memory of waiting to be picked for a team is that I still have my moments of feeling exactly as I did during those years of being picked last. To the outside eye I am successful. I have achieved success in my career, I never worry about my sports ability but enjoy physical activity, and I have an amazing family. But the “Please God, pick me, pick me” times come around every once in a while, like I am on the sidelines of being picked for a team, waiting while the captain looks us over making their decisions based on what they know of our athletic skill, except it’s no longer athletic skill, it’s “ability to do life” skill. I’m feeling a bit like this now.

This too shall pass. Thankfully I’m old enough to learn that while I feel like a child, I have the choice to respond as an adult. That means I’ll hold my head high until my name is called.

A friend, Pat, who attended Murree for only one year, the year after I graduated, posted a quote under her yearbook picture that I’ve tried to recall for years. It goes something like this:

Just when I think I’m all grown up, I learn some astounding fact of life and feel like a child who thinks she’s mastered the art of tying her shoes, only to realize that one loop doesn’t make a bow.

When We Don’t Know the Rules

The sign seems obvious: 15 items or less. But what if you don’t know the rules? What if the sign means nothing to you from your context of shopping in open markets and bazaars where items in shiny plastic containers or wrappings are nonexistent and the idea of a forming any kind of line for checkout is completely foreign?  Not only is the sign and concept of 15 items or less not intuitive or obvious, it’s also completely confusing. You stand at the check out counter, thinking you’re having a  pleasant conversation with the cashier, thrilled that the shopping experience has gone so well and unaware of the glare of the gentleman behind you and the reproachful look of the elderly woman in the grey sweater.

Sometimes the situations aren’t as small as  “15-items or less” . They involve others, often our families, and bring about a sense of isolation and the feeling of being misplaced all over again, reminding us that we don’t really “get it”, that we need an interpreter, not of language, but of events and rules.  My friend Robynn Bliss, Author of Bright Pink Razais faced “a moment” this week and writes well of the memories and feelings associated with not knowing the rules. Enjoy!

Yesterday I had another moment. I thought I knew the rules. I thought I knew how it should go but in the end I had to give it up. Let it go. Assume that once again I really am a foreigner.

You see, yesterday was the Annual Awards Ceremony at the Middle School. We had been notified earlier in the week that our fourteen year old son, Connor, would be receiving an award. After supper I cleared the table and began the job of getting everyone out the door so that we would be in plenty of time to find good parking and a good seat at the ceremony. Suddenly Connor announces he doesn’t want to go. That seemed to me, to be completely immaterial. Want to or not, we’re going and we’re leaving in 10 minutes so get ready! But he really didn’t want to go. There was emotion attached to it. His eyes filled with tears. I kept up the pace for an on time departure.

Lowell, my husband of 17 years, my cultural informant extraordinaire, my interpreter of all things teenage boy, motioned for me to follow him into the other room. Lowell indicated that if Connor didn’t want to go maybe we shouldn’t go. Not go? I was appalled. We had to go. Connor was receiving an award and we needed to be there.
This is when the angst entered the room. Lowell explained, patiently and in good humour, that it was just a middle school event. There would be hundreds of young people acknowledged for achieving anywhere from a 3.2 grade point average to a 4.0. Many more would be acclaimed for good sportsmanship, good citizenship, marked improvement, persistence, perseverance and other note worthy virtues. Connor would not be missed.

In my mind it was disrespectful and rude to not show up. If you knew you were going to be presented an award you needed to be there to receive it. We went round and round it. I couldn’t conceive of the idea of not going. Lowell thought we could blow it off.

Finally Lowell said, “Robynn this isn’t the small Murree Christian School community” –that’s all he had to say. Of course it wasn’t. Murree Christian School was a small international Christian boarding school nestled in the Himalayan foothills of Pakistan. While I was there the enrollment never exceeded 250 students from grades 1 through twelve. It was a small closely knit community. At Murree you knew the Principal who handed you the award. You made eye contact. They had seen you grow up, they had known you since you could hardly spell, they were there, in the back ground giving witness to your childhood, your accomplishments, your achievements. It was Mr Roub, that very same Principal, who had to break the news to me that our pet dog would be taken away. It was Mr Roub who hugged me and handed me a tissue. Mr Roub asked about my parents. Mr Roub knew my aunt and uncle, my cousins. He knew me.

Later when the Principal was Stew Georgia the same was true. He quickly got to know us kids and our families. Phil Billing, already a staunch and established member of the community, entered the administrative role with relational finesse. He spiritually mentored me and taught me to think. These were responsibilities far from his job description and yet he embraced them.

Don’t misunderstand me. The Principal at MCS was responsible for dishing out punishments,academic probation and disciplinary actions as they are here at Eisenhower Middle School. It’s just that here  Greg Hoyt the Principal, who is reportedly an amazing person, only has access to these kids for two years. At Murree they had the unlikely advantage of watching us become who we were all the while knowing whose family we belonged to.

Murree Christian School was a small place with close emotional connections. If you didn’t come to receive an award, for which you were personally chosen, it would have been a slight against those who had chosen you, and those that presented the award. It would have been hurtful and rude. It would have been deliberate and disrespectful.
Here where the classes are enormous—there’s over 200 kids in Connor’s eighth grade (there were 5 in mine!)– it was okay, I guess, not to go.

A friend texted me from the ceremony. Connor received honors for scoring a 3.99 grade point average. He was also nominated for the citizenship award. It still feels strange that we didn’t go, even now, the day after.It feels stranger though, that still, after all this time I can’t always rely on my instincts. Those instincts were cultivated in a different place, in a smaller circle far away from here.

For those interested, take a look at this video taken of Murree in 2008. See what’s recognizable amid all the changes!

Endless Choice, Endless Nightmare

From television channels to cereal and bread options, I am given endless choices in the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave.

The options come in crisp stacatto: Do I want to watch a movie? a ‘real-life’ option? a health show? discovery channel? Do I want Chex? Honey bunches of oats? Granola? Reeses puffs? Lucky charms? Do I want 7-grain? 12-grain? Country Italian? French? Wonder white? How about salad dressing? Thousand island? Ranch? Balsamic Vinaigrette? Greek?

Whether out to eat, in a grocery store, at a movie theatre, or watching television, I am accosted and exhausted by choice.

My husband tells the story of the first time he went out to a restaurant in the United States with me and several of the kids I had grown up with in Pakistan. We were  in our early twenties. The restaurant was not Pakistani or Indian and the conversation went something like this:

“What do you want?” “I don’t know. What do you want?” “I don’t know. There are so many choices!” “I know. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many choices.” “Remember the Marhaba in Murree where we used to get chicken masala?” “Yes! Or how about karahi gosht in the mall in Murree”. 

The reminiscing would go on for some time as our waiter, eyes rolling, repeatedly came over to check on this motley group, waiting for us to decide and place our order. Ordering off even a small menu felt like too much choice. My husband finally took over and moved the dinner along, much to our relief. It should be added that had it been a Pakistani restaurant, hesitation and helplessness would not have occurred. The conversation would have centered around how many samosas, how much curry, and why didn’t restaurants in the US automatically supply us with naan or chapatis instead of charging $2.00 a piece.

When does endless choice become endless nightmare? When does it stop being enjoyable and move into stressful? When is choice a prison? It all depends on your perspective but for many third culture kids,  less choice means it’s easier to thrive. Less choice means more contentment.

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Paralysis in the Cereal Aisle

I wrote this seven years ago, when I first began writing. It made it into my first book, but I want to repost it today. Though I’ve only lived in Kurdistan for a couple of months, I have been profoundly affected by my time. I am back in the United States for a short time and last night was at a supermarket. By American standards, this particular market is small, but even small markets have never ending choices. So I repost, because paralysis in the cereal aisle is real.

If there is a common thread of experience in those who grew up overseas (third culture kids) or spent a considerable amount of time living overseas it could be the paralysis that occurs in the cereal aisle.

I walk in to the local chain supermarket and grab a shopping cart. The vegetable and fruit section causes minimal trauma, other than looking around thinking that I’d like to bargain over the prices.  It’s when I turn the corner into Aisle 3 when the trouble begins.  A sea of cereal assaults me.  The sizes, colors, names and food labels blend into a kaleidoscope and I want to cry.  I am paralyzed as to which to choose and in that instant I am transported back to Eesajee and Sons, the small general store on the mall road in Murree, a mountain area in Pakistan.

In the summers I would go with my mother to this store.  It was all so simple…so easy.  My mother would give Mr. Eesajee a list and he would climb up a ladder pulling down items one by one.  Lyle’s Golden Syrup, Nice biscuits, Digestive biscuits, Green’s Cheddar Cheese, store-bought butter and Corn flakes, one of the two choices of cold cereal available in the market. They were soggy the second a drop of milk touched them and the nutritional value was perhaps minimal, but it’s all we had and we were perfectly content.  Besides – if given a choice I would always pick parathas and omelets at a local tea shop.

I’m jarred back to my present reality by an announcement over the loudspeaker. I have no idea how long I have stood still or how many people have passed me by.  If I can survive the paralysis and make up my mind, there are some pretty good tasting cereals all available for a price.  My world suddenly opens up and I begin to read names and labels. After I pick Cheerios and Honey Bunches of Oats the kaleidoscope begins again as I realize there are 15 kinds of granola on the shelf.

I have often wondered why the cereal aisle?  The bread aisle has a lot of choices, as does the jam and jelly section.

What is it about cereal that brings out the confusion and paralysis, the feeling of being alone?

It should all be so simple.  Third culture kids are many of the brightest people I have ever met.  We survive wars, rumors of wars, and military coups; we know how to bargain in three or more languages;we can sleep anywhere and eat things that would send many to the hospital.  Why can’t we pick cereal?  Why is the mundane always the hardest?

It’s in the ordinary of life where we develop skills that are not always transferable across cultures.

Normal and ordinary includes mosquito netting on hot nights while sleeping outside on a rooftop and making mayonnaise with a blender; long periods of separation from family and eating fish curry with our hands; 15-hour airline flights taken alone at young ages with simply the command “Don’t lose your passport!”; vacationing in countries now considered the“Axis of Evil”; coping with crises considered insurmountable to others but all a part of the community that for better or worse we belong to.

No wonder our lives feel challenged by the normal in these passport countries.

It’s a challenge to go forward and make peace with the commonplace, moving away from thinking all of life in the United States as unimaginative and unoriginal. In my case it begins with the miracle of movement.  People who have experienced severe accidents with trauma to the spinal cord will often say that learning to walk again is one of the hardest things they have ever done.  Physically I do not pretend to relate, emotionally I know exactly what that is like.

It’s learning how to walk in a new way, learning how to live differently, first in baby steps, gradually gaining strength and momentum. It takes time and it takes work. 

The cereal aisle is a baby step in the journey.  Once I have picked my cereal, refusing to give in to the feelings of immobility, I find the rest of my grocery shopping goes quite smoothly.  I decide to pass on the granola…enough trauma for one day.

Besides, who needs three boxes of cereal on their shelf?

You can read more essays like this in the book Between Worlds: Essays on Culture & Belonging.