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.