The Autumn of My Parents

It is a poignant irony that most of us don’t understand or empathize with the humanity of our parents until later in life. Until then they are ‘other’ and we can’t quite believe that they have the same sort of emotions that we do.

It’s this I think about as I look out on the golden glow of Autumn. All week I have been traveling in state for work. I have been traveling to Western and Central Massachusetts. As I looked out across the picture-post card landscape of a New England fall, every shade of yellow, orange, or red with splashes of green set against a stunning blue sky I suddenly caught my breath. For this is the autumn of my parents.

Both my mom and dad were raised in Massachusetts. In summer they had mountain laurel, green grass, and trees galore; in spring they had every shade of green in the budding trees, and every version of flower in gardens and parks; in the winter it was bare trees, warm homes, hot cocoa, and sledding down hills with friends.

And in Autumn they had the colors I now see every day, until a November chill wind would come, blowing all the leaves down, readying them for winter.

But my mom and dad left all that. For 35 years there was no Autumn. There was slightly chilly, warm, warmer, and warmest – the warmest raised the thermometer to the 120 degree Fahrenheit mark and above.

And I realize how much they must have missed these days of Autumn. How much they must have longed for the crisp apples and crisper mornings. I realize how much they must have missed family – my grandma – the only living grandparent; my aunts and uncles who were their brothers and sisters; my cousins – their nieces and nephews; and all that is New England. They left their world of Autumn and went to a region of Pakistan where Autumn didn’t exist.

So every Autumn for the last seven years I have enjoyed the Autumn of my parents. I have come to know a few things about the world and landscape of their childhood into their early marriage. I have driven the roads they logged so many miles on in old Chevrolets and Ford station wagons. I have stopped at Inns and eaten hot clam chowder, I have gone apple picking coming home with apples of every type, polishing some for a bowl on the table and peeling others to go into beautiful pies and other desserts. I have passed old churches with tall steeples and specially marked parking spots for the minister, the choir director, and the church organist.

I have learned a bit more about their world and the beauty of where they were raised.

It was a few years ago when my husband confronted me saying “You don’t want this area to be a part of your life – but it is a part of your life.” And he’s so right. And I’m so glad. There is the Pakistan of my life, the Egypt of my life, and the New England of my life. They are woven together, tapestry-like in the picture they create.

Removing this part of who I am, of where my parents were raised and what went in to making them the people they are, would sever the tapestry and it would be incomplete.

And ultimately – this story, this tapestry is woven by Someone far more creative than me, by Someone who knows how each thread, each part is woven carefully so it becomes a tapestry of complexity and beauty. Perhaps lovelier in some places, and more worn in others, but incomplete without all of it.

My parents are no longer in this place they love. They have moved on to a new place. And as I look out on the physical Autumn around me, I’m so grateful that where they now live they still have Autumn. And they are in the Autumn of their lives – the place where life becomes even sweeter as they realize the road behind them is longer than the road ahead.

And I am so glad that in this Autumn in their lives they still have the colors. 

From “Yes…But” to “But God”

20140512-081326.jpg

“It’s finally spring!” I say brightly to the woman in the elevator. And for sure everything around me shouts this fact. The colors are God’s palette gone wild with greens of every shade, pinks, reds, purples. There are tulips and buds on trees. There is a lightness in the step and the face.

And she responded the way I hoped she wouldn’t “Yes-but….not for long.” “Yes, but….tomorrow it’s going to be 50 degrees.

Yes….But. 

How I hate those words. I hate them when others say them. I hate them even more when I say them. “Yes…but” because no good thing can possibly last. “Yes, but” because we dare not enjoy the now for fear that it will all be taken away.

It’s a cultural thing here, a social facilitator. But there’s a history to this I think. A history born of the hardy New England pioneers who saw so many die in the process of moving to this new world. It’s a natural pessimism that produced great artists and thinkers. Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott. Perhaps it’s a sort of preservation, not getting your hopes up so they can never be dashed to the ground, broken and buried. And it doesn’t just happen with the weather. It’s an all around don’t get too excited about anything, Lord knows what tomorrow will bring.

But for me it’s defeating. For me it’s depressing. For me it’s alienating. 

And then, as I go through an inner diatribe about how much I hate this cultural expression, I am gently reminded about how often I say this to God. “Yes, but.”  As though no good thing that he brings about can possibly last. As though he is not good, he does not care and anything that is the least bit satisfying or happy will be taken from me. It strikes me that my “Yes, but.” needs to be changed to “But God.” Because scripture is full of “But God” moments where everything changes; where what was expected as bad was turned around for good.  I go back in time for a moment. Two years ago my friend Sophie who blogs at Little Gumnut wrote a piece called The But God Moments.” and I go and read what she wrote:

“The most powerful testimonies are the But God moments in our lives and so often we wish them away.  We wish he wouldn’t give us hard things to go through but if we didn’t, people wouldn’t see that he really makes a difference in the tough stuff.  We would get the credit and not him.  I’m not saying he creates awful situations, no, sometimes we do, sometimes its just a result of evil, but he rescues us, he turns the crappy into beautiful.  That’s who he is, his very nature, his core.  He takes up what humanity have screwed well and truely up and he rescues us, restores us, makes us new again.”

“He takes ashes and gives you a crown of beauty, he takes mourning and gives you oil of joy, unlimited and in abundance, he takes a spirit of despair and he gives you praise to wear instead.  It’s not just that the Great Exchange is your life for his, although that in itself is mind-blowing, but he totally transforms your life afterwards as well.” 

“I can’t stop thinking about that exchange.  He takes our ash, the thing no one else wants or values, and he exchanges it for beauty.  The ultimate But God moment.”- Sophie Blanc from Little Gumnut: I Think Therefore I blog

So the irritating “Yes, but” is turned into the glorious “But God.” 

My frustration with today’s elevator interaction dissipates, the “Yes, but” buried in the glorious truth of the But God Moments.

What about you? Do you suffer from the “yes,buts?”

*************

Today’s muffins are an expression of an expat’s connection to both the world she is in now, and her passport country. They are “Star-Spangled Muffins. Strawberries for red, blueberries for blue and some pearl sugar sprinkles on top for white.” They are also a reminder to me that we can have loyalties to both sides of the globe! We hope the non-Americans reading will enjoy the colors if not the sentiment! Thank you Stacy!

Photo Credit: Stefanie Sevim Gardner

Enhanced by Zemanta

Nemo Wuz Here – Community to Cutthroat

Nemo it was called. Evidently winter storms will now be named — the ‘experts’ say this will make them easier to track. Ironically the name ‘Nemo’ comes from Latin and its literal meaning is ‘no one’. So Nemo raged for over 24 hours and by the end there were over 2 feet of snow as evidence of its force.

In the afternoon of the second day of the storm, the snow stopped. While it didn’t get sunny, clearly the storm was traveling on a predetermined trajectory and was heading quickly out to sea. That was when our neighborhood began heading out to look at the afterwards. Shovels of all sizes came out and there was an almost festive feel in the air. In an area of the country where people are not quick to acknowledge others or make friends, it was an extrovert’s dream. Neighbor shoveled beside neighbor, helping here, a side conversation there, laughter and shaking of heads at the seeming impossibility of the job.

Everyone’s goals were the same: Dig out your car, clear your porch, shovel your sidewalk. It was a community feel. I wanted to serve hot chocolate to everyone. It was great.

And then came day two and what had been community became cutthroat. People suddenly realized that if they drove away, their precious parking spot might be taken. Now if you don’t know the city, this won’t make sense to you. But parking spots are precious. More precious than money.

Plastic chairs came out of basement hibernation, put into use as parking space savers. Large, empty, grey garbage cans were placed in the middle of spaces that had been shoveled, some even found orange and white cones normally used at construction sites. People were determined to keep their hard-earned spots.

It quickly became ugly. Community was gone. It was every man for himself. Within 24 hours it had gone from community to cut throat.

Living in a city you accept some things. The good is obvious – walking to the subway, grocery store, long walks on a river that is practically on your doorstep, walking to many coffee shops, book stores, restaurants. You can live without your car.

The bad is that you give up space. You give up yards, green space, and parking space. But theoretically you accept that.

Until you’ve spent 3 hours digging out your car! And then the rules change.That space is yours, dammit!

But for me it’s sad. As much as I love the city, I wish we knew our neighbors better, I wish we had block parties, I wish no one on our street had to put chairs or cones in their parking spaces, instead accepting the annoyance of parking a block or two away.

I wish community didn’t leave so quickly, leaving space for the cutthroat “Hey that’s my space!” yelled angrily at one’s neighbor. Because Nemo wuz here and for a moment, community ruled.

20130211-082438.jpg

blizzard 2013, Nemo, Boston, Cambridge
Our sturdy PT Cruiser poking out of the snow!

20130211-082336.jpg

20130211-082529.jpg

20130211-082551.jpg

20130211-082630.jpg

20130211-082648.jpg

20130211-082720.jpg

20130211-082739.jpg

My Favorite Christmas Story Ever – Angels from the Rooftops

It’s a story worth telling every year.

Pakistan, Ratodero

My mom grew up in a small town in Massachusetts called Winchendon known at the time for its toy factory. The toy factory made a variety of wooden toys and the town earned the well-deserved nickname of Toy Town. A large wooden rocking horse named Clyde created in 1912 stood under a pavilion in the center of town, a symbol of the town’s history.

My mom was named Pauline and she was the first-born, the oldest of four children born to my maternal grandparents, Ruth and Stanley Kolodinski. Hers was a world of seasons; hot, humid summers, fall with red and golden foliage, white Christmases, and rainy April’s that brought out the glorious mountain laurel in late June. She knew baked beans, brown bread and New England boiled dinners.

The long sea journey that took her, my father, and my oldest brother to Pakistan in 1954 transferred her from a town of sidewalks and bay windows to a desert with dusty palm trees and Bougainvillea. The contrast between her life in New England and that in Pakistan could not have been more pronounced. Her story was one of a commitment and calling rooted deeply in her soul; a story with many chapters that began with a move across the world to create a home and life in Pakistan.

Christmases in Pakistan differ dramatically from those in the west. As an Islamic Republic, the majority of the population is Muslim and green, red, and gold twinkling fairylands and holiday music don’t exist. Christmas traditions among the minority Christian population include long drama presentations depicting the Christmas story, all night Christmas caroling parties, and new clothes for everyone in the family. Christmas was a time where my parents opened up our home to people coming from near and far, serving hundreds of cups of sweet Pakistani chai throughout the day along with special sweets and savory snacks.

When my mom and dad first arrived, adjusting to Christmases in Pakistan was a challenge. Loneliness and homesickness tended to come on like thick clouds, made more difficult by their desire to create magic for their children. They were acutely aware of the absence of grandparents and other extended family members back in the U.S. I don’t remember this happening, but I’ve no doubt that sometimes the effort to make things special for us kids overwhelmed and tears crept in, throats catching on Christmas carols as they celebrated Christmas far away from where they had been raised.

The town they lived in at the time of this story possibly resembled ancient Bethlehem more than any place on earth. Dusty streets, flat-roofed houses with courtyards, and donkeys and ox carts that brayed and roamed outside were all a part of the landscape of Ratodero. We were the only foreigners in town and our house was located right in the middle of a neighborhood. Mosques surrounded the house, their tall minarets ever present; the call to prayer echoing into our home five times a day.

When I was almost three years old, my mom experienced deep sadness during the Christmas season and, despite the excitement of  my brothers and me, felt more than ever like we were “deprived” of a “real” Christmas. It was a few days before Christmas that the feelings became more than she could bear and after we were put to bed, she went up on the roof top and looked out over the city of Ratodero. She gives words to her feelings in this narrative:

“Leaning against the wall, I pulled my sweater closer against the evening chill of December. The tears I had been holding back spilled over as I looked up at the stars, then out over the flat roofed houses where our neighbors were cooking their dinner. The smoke from wood and charcoal fires rose in wisps, and with it the now familiar odors of garlic, onions and spices. Familiar, yes, but at that moment the smells only reinforced the strangeness of this place. Then I wondered ‘Did Bethlehem look and smell something like this?’ – Bethlehem where God came down to become a human being, a little baby in a manger, in a setting not so different from some of our neighbor’s homes”.(Jars of Clay, page 128)

It was at this point, tears falling, experiencing the loneliness and sadness of a world apart, that she looked up at the dark, clear sky. As she watched the bright stars, millions of light years away, she heard singing just as on that night so long ago the shepherds heard singing. Could it be angels? It was a moment of wonder and awe that the God who she loved so deeply, who knew her frame, knew her sadness, would provide angels to bring comfort and a reminder that she was not alone.

There were no heavenly angels, but “earth angels” had arrived in the form of our dear friends, the Addletons and the Johnsons – two missionary families with 7 kids between them. Out of love for our family they had traveled along a bumpy dusty road, remembering that we were alone in this city. There they stood in the street outside our front door singing “Joy to the World, the Lord is Come. Let Earth receive Her King!” I am too young to remember the celebration that followed, but my mom writes this:

“We woke our children, and together we sang Christmas Carols, ate Christmas cookies and drank cups of steaming tea. And I knew God had sent them to us on that very night to show me once again that no place where he sent us could ever be “God-forsaken” Jars of Clay, page 128

My mom, far removed from the snowy childhood Christmases of her past, where eggnog and Grandma K’s raisin-filled cookies were plentiful, taught us that Christmas is not magic that can quickly disappear. Instead it’s wonder. It’s the wonder of the incarnation; it’s the wonder of God’s love; it’s the wonder of angels heard from rooftops.

Bloggers Note: If you like this post, check out some of these:

Canadian Thanksgiving & Apple Picking!

Happy Canadian Thanksgiving to all the Canadian Readers of Communicating Across Boundaries! Thanks for tuning in to CAB so regularly and may you have an amazing day of celebration and gratitude.

I have a personal connection with this holiday as for many years we celebrated it with my Canadian sister-in-law. With her move to Oxford with my brother we are wistfully reminiscent of their home and the yearly celebration of not one, but two thanksgiving holidays. Today they are celebrating in Oxford at overseas student housing with a group of friends from all over the world, including  our youngest son.

Other readers – culturally do you celebrate a day dedicated to giving thanks? If so would love to hear about it in the comment section. 

Today is also Columbus day in the United States and gives us a holiday. We are going apple picking — enjoying crisp fall weather, amazing colors of gold, burnt orange, and red, and New England’s famous cider donuts. See Fall in New England: Pumpkins, Apples, Mums and More for a look at what’s in store for us.

It’s these days that hold tradition at its best that so satisfy. They are all the more precious because tomorrow will bring about daily routine and with it the normal stress of life. But these moments of respite are to be celebrated and enjoyed to their fullest.

The best people in all ages keep classic traditions alive – George Santayana (adapted)

I Remember

Me & My Mom – Easter, 2019

Today is Mother’s Day in the United States. For the first time ever as a mom I am neither with any of my children or with my own mom. I have hungrily devoured messages, emails, and phone calls that are filled with love and words of affirmation of this amazing and difficult task called ‘being a mom’. In honor of my own mom, who I am fortunate enough to still have on this planet, I post this piece that I wrote a number of years ago. 

To My Mom

I remember sleeping on the rooftop of our house in Ratodero. We would wake at dawn when we heard the call to prayer from the nearby mosque and despite your maternal pleadings, we couldn’t go back to sleep.

I remember being tucked into bed at night, you would read me a story, kiss me, and then sit by my bedside and sing. It’s what I missed the most in boarding school.

I remember that first trip on the train party. In my memory I had just turned seven years old and we were in Hyderabad. I cried tears from my soul the entire way to the station. As the train pulled out, I stopped crying and you began. I never saw your tears and it wasn’t until later that I heard about them.

I remember you never let anyone call me chubby, even when I was.

I remember our fights. Stone-faced cold I could be to my mother. And I think I may have been the child that could bring on your fiery temper better than the others. I remember your forgiveness. Sometimes I think we both thought the fights would continue forever, but we were wrong.

I remember the picture you hung on our wall, a snow scene of New England, reminder of your home so far away from the desert of Sindh. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I realized that there must have been times when you missed your home so much that it hurt.

I remember seeing you every morning. No matter how early I got up, you were up earlier, praying and reading your Bible, strength of your soul.

I remember your presence in the first couple of weeks of me becoming a mom. Your common sense wisdom was a gift.

And I remember the first time I realize that you were aging. I fought it. Because if you were aging it meant there would come one day when you would no longer be available to talk to and ask questions of; to pray for me, my marriage, my children.

But you are still here and still speak into my life. So today I remember that I want to Thank You publicly and privately, from my heart.

Happy Mother’s Day. On this day it’s good to remember.

Related Articles:

1000 Moms Project

Angels From the Rooftop – A Christmas Story from Pakistan

Bethlehem Gate

My mom grew up in a small town in Massachusetts called Winchendon known at the time for its toy factory. The toy factory made a variety of wooden toys and the town earned the well-deserved nickname of Toy Town. A large wooden rocking horse, created in 1912 and recreated in the 1980’s, stood under a pavilion in the center of town, symbolic of the town’s history

My mom was named Pauline and she was the first-born, the oldest of four children born to my maternal grandparents, Ruth and Stanley Kolodinski. Her’s was a world of seasons; hot, humid summers, fall with red and golden foliage, white Christmases, and rainy April’s that brought out the glorious mountain laurel in late June. She knew baked beans, brown bread and New England boiled dinners.

The long sea journey that took her, my father and my oldest brother to Pakistan in 1954 took her from a town of sidewalks and bay windows to a desert with dusty palm trees and Bougainvillea. The contrast between her life in New England and that in Pakistan could not have been more pronounced. Her story was one of a commitment and calling rooted deeply in her soul; a story with many chapters that began with a move across the world to create a home and life in Pakistan.

Christmases in Pakistan differ dramatically from those in the west. As an Islamic Republic, the majority of the population is Muslim and green, red, and golden twinkling fairylands and holiday music don’t exist. Christmas traditions among the minority Christian population include long drama presentations depicting the Christmas story, all night Christmas caroling parties and new clothes for everyone in the family. Christmas was a time where my parents opened up our home to people coming from near and far, serving hundreds of cups of sweet Pakistani chai throughout the day along with special sweets and savory snacks.

When my mom and dad first arrived, adjusting to Christmases in Pakistan was a challenge. Loneliness and homesickness tended to come on like thick clouds, made more difficult by their desire to create magic for their children along with an acute awareness of the absence of grandparents and other extended family members back in the U.S. I don’t remember this happening, but I’ve no doubt that sometimes the effort to make things special for us kids overwhelmed and tears crept in, throats catching on Christmas carols as they celebrated Christmas far away from where they had been raised.

The town they lived in at the time of this story possibly resembled ancient Bethlehem more than any place on earth. Dusty streets, flat-roofed houses with courtyards, and donkeys and ox carts that brayed and roamed outside were all a part of the landscape of Ratodero. Our house was located right in the middle of a neighborhood and we were the only foreigners in the entire town.

I was almost 3 years old in the Christmas of 1962. It was a Christmas where my mom experienced deep sadness and, despite the excitement of me and my brothers, felt more than ever like we were “deprived” of a “real” Christmas. It was a few days before Christmas that the feelings became more than she could bear and after we were put to bed, she went up on the roof top and looked out over the city of Ratodero. She gives words to her feelings in this narrative:

“Leaning against the wall, I pulled my sweater closer against the evening chill of December. The tears I had been holding back spilled over as I looked up at the stars, then out over the flat roofed houses where our neighbors were cooking their dinner. The smoke from wood and charcoal fires rose in wisps, and with it the now familiar odors of garlic, onions and spices. Familiar, yes, but at that moment the smells only reinforced the strangeness of this place. Then I wondered ‘Did Bethlehem look and smell something like this?’ – Bethlehem where God came down to become a human being, a little baby in a manger, in a setting not so different from some of our neighbor’s homes”.(Jars of Clay, page 128)

It was at this point, tears falling, experiencing the loneliness and sadness of a world apart, that she looked up at the dark, clear sky and as she watched the bright stars, millions of light years away, she heard singing, just as on that night so long ago, the shepherds heard singing. Could it be angels? It was a moment of wonder and awe that the God who she loved so deeply, who knew her frame, knew her sadness, would provide angels to bring comfort and a reminder that she was not alone.

There were no heavenly angels, but “earth angels” had arrived in the form of our dear friends, the Addletons and the Johnsons – two missionary families with 7 kids between them – who out of love for our family had traveled along a bumpy dusty road, remembering that we were alone in this city. There they stood in the street, outside our front door singing “Joy to the World, the Lord is Come. Let Earth receive Her King!” I am too young to remember the celebration that followed, but my mom writes this:

“We woke our children, and together we sang Christmas Carols, ate Christmas cookies and drank cups of steaming tea. And I knew God had sent them to us on that very night to show me once again that no place where he sent us could ever be “God-forsaken” Jars of Clay, page 128

My mom, far removed from the snowy childhood Christmases of her past, where eggnog and Grandma K’s raisin-filled cookies were plentiful, taught us that Christmas is not magic that can quickly disappear, it’s wonder. It’s the wonder of the incarnation; it’s the wonder of God’s love; it’s the wonder of angels heard from rooftops.

Bloggers Note: If you like this post, check out some of these:

Fall in New England: Pumpkins, Apples, Mums & More!

Fall in New England is a season to live for. The humidity of August is replaced by warm days and crisp nights, usually accompanied by brilliant blue skies. There is a sense of anticipation as the many universities begin and students from all over the world come to the area to study.  The anticipation is also a recognition that the beautiful days will not last forever, and inevitably winter will come.

Fall foliage is famous in this part of the country, but along with the foliage are other things that are equally beautiful and appealing. Pumpkins, apples, mums, cider, and more are all part of the season that is fall. This weekend we experienced all of this through the quintessential (I love that word!) activity of apple picking.

It doesn’t get better than apple picking in New England. The ingredients for success are a working farm with many varieties of apples, a ride on bails of hay in a tractor (aka hay ride), kids (it doesn’t matter the age – they’ll still be excited and fight), cider apple donuts and cold milk, cider, chili-dogs, and all the apples your stomach can handle during the process. Once you get home, you shine the apples until you can see light reflect off them, and bake apple crisp, crumble, bread, sauce, scones, pie, or whatever you want. I feel like Pioneer Woman – only a city pioneer woman and so proud.

Pumpkins, gourds, mums & hay created a brilliant display and photo op

Can you imagine this in your front yard? Only if you lived on a farm!

Never put up a sign like this when you know a Gardner is going to be coming. It's an open invitation....

This is where people weren't supposed to climb....

The farm we picked is located in Amesbury, Massachusetts, just a few miles from the New Hampshire border. Called Cider Hill Farm, it boasts hundreds of apple and peach trees;a country store with home made baked goods, cider donuts and jams, jellies and syrups; a large number of chickens, and plenty of room for all.

Enjoy the trip through pictures and then go online and book your plane or bus tickets and come to experience pumpkins,picking, eating and baking apples, mums and more.

Note from Blogger: No wonder I usually stick to only one or two pictures! Putting in pictures with clever captions is far more difficult than writing!

Pumpkins of all sizes for sale

The walk to the apple orchard, working off cider donuts

And the apple trees...Cortland, Macou, Macs, Gala, Honeycrisp and more

Getting the best apples takes climbing a tree!

Jonathan got the prize for getting the monster apple

This is my photography at it's best, I had to insert it twice!

Apples and blogger getting tired of trying to think of catchy captions

Making cider donuts, plain to the left, sugared to the right

Great photo op, surrounded by pumpkins, gourds and mums

Heading down the hill on the tractor, surrounded by bails of hay, with blogger writing the blog in her head

Rockport, Blueberry Pie & the Cottage

I am back in Cambridge after a weekend that was made for poets and artists. Sun-filled days, ocean waves, and the rocky coasts of Rockport, Ma were my scenery, blueberry pie was my dessert, and “The Cottage” was my resting place.

“The Cottage” is actually a condo across the street and down one block from the ocean. It is located in the Pigeon Cove area of Rockport,  surrounded by old New England homes with big porches, hanging plants, and bay windows.

We found “The Cottage” three years ago, and taking a huge risk decided to purchase on a short sale. Thinking back on this I think we were both a bit crazy but I’m so glad we were. We had made a cross-country move only 6 months prior from Phoenix, Arizona. This move, made in the middle of winter where sun and palm trees waved us goodbye and the worst winter in five years bid us hello, was a tough one. For weeks we said “Right Move – Wrong Time” to each other as we battled through a job search and mid-life crisis for me; a teenage daughter whose “Life was ruined!”; and a search for the right school for our 6th grader.

We exchanged cathedral ceilings, designer paint, and a master suite for a Cambridge condo that had us occasionally pining for space and light. Into our lives at this time came the opportunity to buy this condo-cottage in Rockport – a place that for over twenty years of marriage had been a destination of peace and light. Rockport is an old artist colony and sits apart on the North Shore of Boston with its eclectic people, unique homes, and charm. We had always dreamed of having a place like this. A place that we would not only use as our get away, but a place we could offer to others  for those times when life feels too hard, and peace feels too aloof. So we did it…we risked practicality and finance and bought “The Cottage.”

And this weekend, yet again, we remember why we did this. For after a few months of stress and uncertainty in both of our jobs, a house full of people all going various ways and inevitably colliding, after 85 inches of snow and a daughter going through a revolution in Cairo, we set up “The Cottage.” Basking on ocean rocks in beautiful sunshine, eating blueberry pie, playing games, and talking for hours with some of our best friends we fell in love yet again with “The Cottage”.

Back in Cambridge, as we prepare for a busy week ahead, reality bites, but we look at each other, sigh, and say “At least we have
The Cottage!”

Weather – The Great ‘Social Facilitator’

Eeyore being sad.

It’s a bright sunny day and I run to catch the elevator to the 4th floor. I could walk but I’m already a bit late. The elevator is crowded with faces of every color and bodies of every size – but the expressions are identical. No smiles, no light in the eyes, no eye contact. Someone has to break the silence so I, in the spirit of the culture in which I am living, speak  ‘weather’ to everyone in general:  “Isn’t it beautiful outside?”. Without missing a beat, a woman at the back of the elevator says “I heard it’s going to be rainy on Friday.” and with this response, reminiscent of Winnie the Pooh’s Eeyore character and the famous line “If it is a good morning, which I doubt”, silence again takes over and the 4th floor can’t come soon enough.

Communicating across the boundary of …weather. It is a difficult task. My sister-in-law Susanna, on returning from Pakistan and reentering life in the west, made this insightful observation of America “People know the weather better than they know their neighbors”. How do you get past this common conversation starter and often stopper? My experience has been that of all the countries I have traveled, the places where this is the most common is the Northeastern part of the United States and England.

In an effort to understand this phenomenon and communicate across these boundaries of weather, I found a book titled Watching the English – The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. While it isn’t specifically about my current area of the world, it gave me some tremendous help in the area of weather in particular. I highly recommend the book for any of you who are curious, confused or just plain annoyed with some of the unspoken rules in the West. The part that helped me interpret ‘weather speak’ was the chapter titled….“Weather”! Consider this paragraph:

English weather-speak is a form of code, evolved to help us overcome our natural reserve and actually talk to each other. Everyone knows, for example, that “Nice day, isn’t it?”, “Ooh, isn’t it cold?” “Still raining eh?” and other variations on the theme are not requests for meteorological data; they are ritual greetings, conversation-starters, or ‘default fillers’. In other words, English weather-speak is a form of ‘grooming talk’ – the human equivalent of what is known as ‘social grooming’ among our primate  cousins, where they spend hours grooming each other’s fur, even when they are perfectly clean, as a means of social bonding.” Later in the chapter the author states that weather is a “social facilitator”.

If I understand ‘weather-speak’ as a social facilitator, I will be much less critical of this ritual. I will realize that some cultures need help to move them into conversation and I will play by these rules while living in this culture.  I realized this morning that to socially facilitate a connection with my compatriots on the elevator I should have continued the conversation by agreeing about the bad weather only four days away! It would have invited her into further dialogue. I should add that the woman who responded to me also broke the cardinal rule of weather speak. In order to really have the social bonding experience that I had initiated, she was supposed to agree with me, or so the book tells me.Failure to agree in this manner is a serious breach of etiquette. When the priest says ‘Lord have mercy upon us’, you do not respond ‘Well, actually why should he?’ you intone dutifully ‘Christ have mercy upon us’.”

But the etiquette barring both contradiction and silence was not kept, and I was left yet again knowing that I still have a great deal to learn about the unspoken rules of engagement. Perhaps if I have the patience I can come up with my own book called Watching the Americans – A Third-Culture-Kid’s Journey into a World of Unspoken Rituals and Rules.

Coats too Big, Shoes too Small – Shopping as an Immigrant

“When Cesar modeled his new coat, my father nodded his approval and remarked that my brother would surely grow into it. It would surely help him survive his first American winter. Alas, the opposite proved to be true. The coat was so large it shielded him far less effectively than one his own size. It was as if, marooned in America, we had lost our perspective, our sense of proportion…” from The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: My Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World by Lucette Lagnado 2007

Who of us that have made our homes in different countries do not relate with this poignant picture of a family, struggling to figure out how to live, shop, and survive in new territory?

Our first winter in New England after living in Cairo and Islamabad was painfully cold as two of my sons walked around in jackets 3 sizes too large. “But they were on sale!” I exclaimed to my husband, completely overwhelmed with the task of clothing a family of seven for winter. Gone were the Cairo winters where it rarely reached freezing, where honeysuckle and magnolias came out in early February lining the streets with a color and fragrance that dramatically indicated spring was upon us.

Not only were the coats too large, the BOGO (buy one, get one half off) Payless Shoes filled our entryway with only one problem. The shoes and boots bought in the midst of culture shock were too small – the tightness causing blisters on the uncomplaining feet of kids who were completely flexible and thought this was normal.

I tried to explain some of this recently at a workshop on ‘Culture & Healthcare’, the words to articulate failing to come. How could I find words to describe how badly we wanted this new country to work for us? How silently desperate we felt, not wanting to seem as outsiders or ‘other’ but failing so miserably at the minor tasks in life that the larger tasks were pushed hopelessly aside, our angst obvious.

The more I failed, the more defeated I became. I sensed I could never make this work and like the Israelites who wandered in the Sinai wilderness I had the unspoken memory of “the fish I ate in Egypt at no cost!” * ‘Take me back to Egypt where I belong’ was my silent prayer.

Years after those first traumas, I found Lucette Lagnado’s poignant portrayal of her family’s journey from Cairo to the United States. I felt like I was going to bed with my friends every night as I read chapter after chapter, not wanting the book to end. The pictures that she created with words were a salve, a precious ointment, soothing my memories and the hidden wounds I had sustained during those first years of arrival to the United States. They mirrored our journey and experience despite being of a different time and the move to the United States being for different reasons.

Just as Lucette’s family left Egypt with 26 suitcases, so did our family consolidate our years of living as a family in Cairo  down to 26 suitcases and the backpacks on our shoulders. Just as they felt lost, displaced and without context in their new world, so did we.

The shopping experience was merely a symbol of the far greater adjustment to a country whose lifestyle, beliefs, and values would create in us a conflict and discomfort akin to the cold from a coat too large, or blisters from shoes too small; our consolation and solace coming from those who understood – whether in person or through a book.

*(Numbers 11 verse 5)

Related Articles: