Those Damn Decade Photos

It was last January when I saw the first decade photo. I remember it well. It was of a gorgeous 27 year old who had also been a gorgeous 17 year old. No awkward photos there. Just lovely teeth, lovely hair, lovely – I mean really lovely – skin, and a cute caption. Something like “Wow – it’s been a decade. So much has happened but I guess I’m holding up okay!” All of us responded positively to the beautiful perfection that was her. She also had a chin, which for some of us was perhaps the most enviable part of her photograph.

I began to see more and more decade photos, and finally I thought “Wow! Wouldn’t it be fun to find some photos and do the same?”

I would periodically set out to find the decade photos, but every time a memory would stop me. A memory from the last decade of life. A memory that didn’t find its way into social media, but found its way into my mind, floating there until I gave it the laughter, joy, or tears that it deserved.

These damn decade photos – they capture a couple of seconds in time, but the moments before and after dance around them, creating an album of life that isn’t easily shared.

For so many of us, these decade photos are tough. A decade ago, some had a home to go to for Christmas – now they long for their phones to buzz with a text of invitation from someone who knows they are alone. A decade ago, a grandmother could walk quickly and unassisted, conquering her eighties like a boss. Now she walks with a cane or walker, ever aware of her fragility. A decade ago, a couple pledged their lives to each other- family and friends witnessing and celebrating. Now a casket holds the body of one of them while the other lives through the unimaginable.

When we first search for the photos, it’s a fun game. “Let’s look!Let’s see how the pictures differ!” The kid with braces and a god-awful haircut turns into the male model – or not. The pictures we carefully curate may be beautiful or fun but they hide much of what the decade held. For me, the longer I searched, the more i realized the moments lived in the decade were far deeper than the pictures we took.

A decade ago, I was parenting a child in middle school, a child in high school, two college students, and a young adult. Now I’m parenting 5 adults, all on their own in different cities of the world. How could I possibly find photos that captured the differences between them and now? More than that, did I have the resilience to look back at the hard, hard things that transpired? The “non-curated” moments where life fell apart and you weren’t sure you could go on.

But I kept searching, because ultimately I wanted to see how life had changed, and how we had changed and adapted with it. ⠀

This morning I looked back in the archives and found the long sought-after pictures. Memories and moments hidden from the one-dimensional camera lens tumbled over each other, but I pressed on.

For most parents, mingled in with the pictures are a million stories of our kids growing up and facing equal amounts of joy and pain without us able to bear witness and be a soft landing for them. They have grown up and grown on. And though we may still be very much a part of their lives, we are not going to know everything, because we aren’t supposed to. ⠀

The best we can do is embrace them when they come home, give them a soft pillow and a warm drink, and love them, love them, love them. And we can pray mercy and grace over them by the handfuls, and pray that they will have the tools to face whatever is going on in their lives. ⠀

And then sometimes we get golden moments. Weddings, births, and reunions – visible evidence of families expanding to include partners and grandkids. And somehow the love that we have for them grows to include the extra people. It’s a miracle really – this human capacity to love. A miracle of God.⠀


Next time I see a decade photo, I’ll remember that even the most beautiful picture includes a storied life of joy and pain, sometimes visible, other times invisible.

Here’s to the untold stories of this past decade, the ones that never make it to social media, because they aren’t supposed to. The stories we hold close to our hearts and first in our prayers. And may we always remember, we are all so much more than we appear.

2009-2019

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

Posted by Marilyn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

DR. MICHELLE HARWELL 

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

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


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

DR. MICHELLE HARWELL

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

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

DANAU TANU AUTHOR OF GROWING UP IN TRANSIT 

Losing My Umbrella – Some Thoughts on a Father’s Death

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I am looking through old pictures when my eyes begin to blur with salty tears. So many of the pictures I’ve been looking through are pictures of my father.

Whether summer or winter, there he is – his familiar face with his ready smile. My dad smiled from his bones. It was never fake, never false, it was who he was. I look at pictures from years ago and pictures from last summer with seemingly little difference. He is there, he is strong, he is fully present, he is smiling.

When your father dies, say the Irish

You lose your umbrella against bad weather.

This is the beginning of a poem by Diana Der-Hovanessian that describes how different cultures express what happens when your father dies. It’s a good beginning. Anyone who has lost their father can write their own when my father died moments. In honor of his birthday coming up on June 7th, here are mine.


When my father died, I lost a rock, someone who was steadfast and secure in a shifting world.

When my father died, I lost the offer of a bowl of icecream whenever I visited.

When my father died, I lost someone who asked me every weekend of the summer “Are you heading up to Rockport this weekend?” How he loved Rockport!

When my father died, I lost the ability to say “Hi Dad!” and hear his strong reply “Hi Marilyn!”

When my father died, I lost his well-worn jokes, told with so much laughter he could hardly make it to the punch line.

When my father died, I lost a piece of enthusiasm and love for life.

When my father died, I lost a birthday and a father’s day. There will be no more cards to send, phone calls to make.

When my father died, I lost one grandfather for my kids. I lost his earthly prayers, but his heavenly ones remain.

When my father died, I lost pieces of my childhood, now buried in a piece of earth.

When my father died, I lost my umbrella, my raincoat, and my hood. He was all those things and more.

When my father died, I lost his presence, but I kept the memories and they are sweet.

When my father died, I lost him, but I didn’t lose myself – because he never wanted me to be anyone else.

When my father died, Heaven became a lot sweeter and a bit closer.

When my father died. 


SHIFTING THE SUN by Diana Der-Hovanessian

 When your father dies, say the Irish

you lose your umbrella against bad weather.

May his sun be your light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Welsh

you sink a foot deeper into the earth.

May you inherit his light, say the Armenians

When your father dies, say the Canadians

you run out of excuses.

May you inherit his sun, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Indians

he comes back as the thunder.

May you inherit his light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Russians,

he takes your childhood with him.

May you inherit his light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the British,

you join his club you vowed you wouldn’t.

May you inherit his sun, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Armenians,

your sun shifts forever

and you walk in his light.

Remembering those First Days of a Newborn

It’s my daughter Annie’s birthday today.

Annie is our firstborn. She ushered us gently into parenthood 32 years ago. On day two she slept so long that we sat around her woven Moses basket like we were humans examining an alien being.

The conversation went something like this:

“She’s so perfect.”

“Yes. She is SO perfect.”

“Look at her tiny hands.”

“Look at her nose.”

“She is so tiny.”

“She is so beautiful.”

“Do you think she’s sleeping too long?”

“I don’t know. Do YOU think she’s sleeping too long?”

“I kind of think so.”

“Me too. Maybe we should wake her up?”

“Do you think we should wake her up?”

“I kind of do.”

“Yeah. Me too.”

“It’s been so long since she’s nursed.”

“Yeah. Let’s wake her up.”

“Okay.”

“How?”

“Well, maybe if we pick her up she’ll just wake up.”

“Okay.”

“You do it.”

“No. You do it.”

“Okay.”

Sigh.

“But she looks so peaceful!”

“I know but I think she needs to wake up. She needs to nurse.”

“Okay.”

“Look at her feet!”

“I know. They are so perfect.”

“Look at her rose-bud lips! Look at how they are quivering.”

And so it went on and on and on.

Finally, we woke her up. And then….well, then we couldn’t get her to sleep. She was the wide-awake baby girl.

So the conversation continued.

“Do you think she’s still hungry?”

“I don’t know. I think she nursed a lot.”

“Do you think anything is wrong?”

“Maybe we should change her diaper again.”

And on, and on, and on. Because we were smitten and all we could do was talk about our baby. The most perfect baby in the entire world.


There is something about those days with your first-born child that you will never, ever forget. Your whole being is raw with love. Your heart is on the outside of your body and there is no protection for the arrows that come your way. You marvel at every tiny move, expression, furrowed brow, slight smile. You hold the tiny thing close, afraid to let it go. Your nights and days are no longer your own, and they swim together, closing in on each other. You have never known that kind of exhaustion. You thought exhaustion was about research papers in college, but you now scoff at that exhaustion. That exhaustion is kid’s play compared to this real, grownup exhaustion.

You can’t get enough of this little human. When you play charades, this little baby is your favorite person to act out. First touch, first smiles, first tooth, even their poops and peeps are cause for amazement or distress. And your conversations? You hide it from your friends but when you’re alone together, all you want to talk about is this little baby that now consumes your life.

Today I remember those first days and I smile. My first-born now has her own first-born and I delight in watching the two of them. His face lights up when she enters the room and his smiles brighten her world, just as her’s did mine.

In the dance of parenthood, we have left the slow dance of the beginning, with it’s long moments of sheer wonder. We are now in the era of jazz, where you agree on the notes, and then you improvise. Slow jazz plays in the background, but this dance of parenthood is no longer the central part of our lives. The furniture is rearranged and sometimes the house echoes with empty. We miss them but we have raised them with wings to fly and they exercise those wings well.

But still there are those moments, especially on their birthdays, when we are taken back to the beginning.

We remember and we smile.

Happy Birthday Annie! Being your mom is an undeniable gift.


Note: The above dialogue went on for much longer than it took you to read it!

A Life Overseas -Thoughts on Entry, Reentry, and Third Culture Kids


Every summer I begin thinking about change and transition, about reentry and culture shock. With the first warm breezes of the season, I am transported to places and times where this was my reality. And I begin to hear stories from others who are going through these transitions. The stories are told in photographs and short, often humorous, statements, hiding the tremendous impact of transnational moves.
When I began looking into information on reentry, I came across refugee resettlement and orientation programs for refugees entering a country. I was struck by how much the advice resonated with me as a third culture kid. While on one level the TCK and the refugee experience are worlds apart, the goals and the realistic expectations in refugee orientation programs are remarkably helpful.
Because orientation for the refugee is not just about theory and information, it is designed to give the refugee “the opportunity to develop realistic expectations regarding their resettlement, to consider different situations that might arise in a new country, and develop skills and attitudes that will facilitate their adjustment and well-being”*

The first thing I realized is that we, like the refugee or immigrant, don’t ‘reenter’. Instead we ‘enter’ a world that is not familiar, a world that calls up all of our flexibility and ingenuity to adjust. It may seem like a small thing, but the difference between those words is huge.

So I began developing my own list for my tribe, the third culture kid tribe. I offer it here with hopes that both those who enter and those who re-enter may find a nugget of truth. I’d love to here your thoughts through the comment section!


  • Realistic time expectations. Entering a new world is a journey and it rarely happens in three months or six months. We are moving to a new country, a new world. As such it deserves all the attention we would give to going into a totally different culture. Transitioning to a new life in our passport country is far bigger than spending a summer vacation there. Give yourself a minimum of two years, but don’t be surprised if it takes five.
  • Accepting that we are a combination of worlds. As TCKs, our worlds are woven together in a semi-formed tapestry. Many of us feel like completely different people when we’re in our passport countries. We are not chameleons and we are not impostors; rather we’re trying to make sense of our worlds and figure out what cultural adaptation looks like as we effectively transition to our passport countries. Yes – there is loss of identity. But as we work through these losses, our identities as those who can live between worlds emerge stronger than ever.
  • Understanding culture shock. We don’t go through reverse culture shock – we go through culture shock. Reverse culture shock means we know a culture, have been away from it, and are returning to differences we didn’t expect. In our case, we don’t really know this culture we are entering. We may think we know it, because our passports tell us we should, but we don’t. And while reverse culture shock is described as “wearing contact lenses in the wrong eyes”, culture shock is having completely different lenses.
  • Giving voice to a longing. Struggling to give voice to our longings is enormous. Somehow it doesn’t feel valid. But giving voice to our longings is legitimate. Our world as we know it has ended. We may be able to visit our home, our adopted country, but we know that we must have a valid and legal way to stay there should we wish to go back.

    We will have times of intense longing and wistfulness for what no longer exists.

    This can be captured best in the word ‘saudade’, a Portuguese word that came into the existence in the 13th century. “The famous saudade of the Portuguese is a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness. ~ In Portugal of 1912, A. F. G. Bell”  Giving voice to ‘saudade’ helps take away its power and ability to control. The longings are there, they are valid, but if they control us we will despair. Our longings can be expressed through writing, through connecting to other TCKs, through the visual arts, through theatre, through faith, and through friendships.

  • Understand the shaping of our worldview. While our parents went overseas with already developed worldviews and through their interactions in their host countries had their worldviews affected, ours began developing in our host country. Our first memories may be the sound of the Call to Prayer or a dusty road and traffic jam involving a buffalo, two donkey carts, and our parent’s jeep. They may be of a crowded and colorful bazaar filled with colorful fabrics and bangles. Our experiences shape our worldview this will probably differ markedly from those of our parents and those of our peers in our passport countries. Having realistic understanding and expectations on differing worldviews helps us to not expect or demand that others understand us.
  • Faith can be complicated. For many of us, faith is paramount to who we are. But it gets tangled up in our adjusting to life in our passport countries. It’s particularly difficult if we feel we can’t question God, express disbelief or doubt, or change denominations because it feels disloyal to our parents.This can inhibit our honesty as it relates to our faith journeys. Perhaps doubt was never a part of our faith journey before, but now that our world has changed the doubts surface. A question emerges: “Will the faith that sustained us through our journey thus far be big enough to get us through this crucial juncture?” It’s an important question and often we need to find people beyond our parents who can hear and understand us, speaking truth into our faith and our doubt.
  • The importance of cultural brokers. Often there emerges someone who doesn’t share our background but understands in a way that defies our understanding. This is a gift. This is the person that explains life to us, that walks beside us. This is the one that looks through our high school yearbook and says“Now who’s this with you? And did you go on that camping trip where you got in trouble for sneaking over to where the boys were sleeping before or after this picture was taken?” This personal interest helps us understand what friendship, listening, and cultural brokering look like. So learn from them. Look to them. But don’t put undue burdens on them.
  • Place is significant – significant physically, emotionally, and spiritually. As humans, at our core is a need for ‘place’. Call it ‘belonging’, call it ‘home’, call it anything you like. But all of us are integrally connected to place. We are incarnate beings and so when those places are taken away, we suffer from a “disruption” of place. It is clear that the TCK has a disruption of place – and often multiple times in their lives. If the disruption goes beyond our ability to adapt it becomes a pathology. The late Paul Tournier, a gifted Swiss psychologist, calls this a “deprivation of place”. He says that to be human is to need a place, to be rooted and attached to that place. Many of us downplay this connection to place by over spiritualizing it or underestimating its importance. We need not dismiss it, we need not idolize it; we must only acknowledge it and recognize it as valid.
  • The yearning heart. All of us have a heart that yearns for belonging, for acceptance, for love. This is the human condition. It’s a fundamental truth and it is not unique to the third culture kid. What is hard is tying this in with all of our TCK experiences, life story, and worldview. It is easy for us to mistake our yearning for only that which we left, instead of remembering that we had a heart that yearned before we ever left our passport countries. If we can grow in an understanding of our hearts, what is global and universal in our yearning, and what is specifically tied to being a third culture kid, we are in a good place.  A desire for place is universal, a desire for our particular place, whether it be Buenos Aires or Bolivia or Cairo or Lebanon, is specific to our TCK background.
  • The need for grace. In the midst of all of this, it is so easy to want grace, and so hard to give grace. Yet all of this is about grace. The grace that we were given by our host country, the grace of others who walked beside us as kids, the grace of our parents in caring and loving even when they don’t fully understand. Those of us who ‘get’ grace will find it easier to give grace. Can we give grace to those who we feel dismiss us, hurt us, misunderstand us, or don’t like us? Can we give grace to the people who we misunderstand, who we don’t like, who we dismiss?

    None of this is a formula and it is not a list of stages. Although there are similarities that bind us together as TCK’s, ultimately we each have our own unique story.

    Walking through the entry process and emerging on the other side is one more chapter in that story, one more pattern in the ever-evolving tapestry of our lives.

This post was orginally published at A Life Overseas. 

Keep the Lego! (and other thoughts from adult TCKs)


Each year, I pick some TCK quotes to pass on to parents. Some of the quotes are poignant, some funny, but most of all – I think they are wise. The third culture kid is not a single person with one viewpoint; instead it is kids all over the world, each with their unique story and journey.  All these unique stories share one thing – a perspective on life that has developed through living outside of their passport cultures.

The quotes I share today reflect that life and can help parents as they seek to raise their children outside the places that the parents call ‘home’.

[Note – I have credited the quotes to those who were willing, the remainder are anonymous.]

Enjoy and feel free to share your thoughts through the comments!

“Take the Lego and never, ever, ever, sell the dollhouse.” Marilyn Gardner

“Where are our regular relationships, our connections? All over the map, and still in motion. It might depend on the week, on the season. We track them with social media and when they disappear for a while, we look in familiar places for them to resurface.  We load into the car with the members of our tribe that we can gather and we stop in and visit the ones we can reasonably reach on the way to and from our destination.”  On Being Local from Michael Pollock  

“Remember, our grief will not look like your grief. What we miss may not be the same as what you miss.” 

“I never felt so foreign as when I was surrounded by people who thought I was one of them.” Maria Lombart #FIGT17NL

“You may be reentering, but we are not reentering. We are “entering” – this may seem small to you, but it is a big distinction.”  

My Opa stood by the train tracks, huddled deep into his jacket in the cold Dutch winter. We’d snapped a quick photo together, I’d climbed on the train, and waved goodbye. I didn’t realize it would be the last time I would see him. As (third culture kids) grow up, we learn quickly that to say goodbye is an expected part of life. We leave without a tear because we know, there will be many more goodbyes ahead. Maria Lombart #FIGT17NL

“Your home is not transferrable to what is home to your children, and neither are your feelings or experiences. Sounds very simple, but it is very hard to live by.” Eva Laszlo-Herbert 

“Don’t expect your children to have the same feeling of belonging to your culture(s) and language(s) – whatever they choose doesn’t mean that they don’t love and respect you.” Ute Limacher-Riebold 

“Remember that kids and parents see the same event through different lenses. A child only knows part of the story, and interprets meaning from what they know. As they grow, they may need to hear the part of the story that was hidden when they were younger.” 

“Parents should not be surprised by their children’s future life choices based on their own choice to raise their kids overseas. For a parent who has raised their kids overseas to make the statement: ‘I wish you would settle down!’ feels uniquely unfair.”

“The part of the story you don’t know is the most important part – it gives meaning to your memories.” Marilyn Gardner 

“Loyalties will not look the same and be divided. The expectation that kids loyalty to place, to food, to nation, to sports teams will look the same as their parents is a false expectation. ” Anonymous


Finally – a note of encouragement: All parenting is complicated, so don’t immediately assume things are difficult because of the life overseas and third culture kid factor. As parents we make career and vocational choices based on what we know at the time. To forever heap guilt on yourself doesn’t help your kids. Instead, continue to listen well, respect, create a sense of place, and love your kids. 

Readers – what would you add? 

Some Thoughts on Parenting and Goodbyes


“All the world feels caught in these goodbyes, goodbyes that bruise and hurt but remind us that our hearts are still soft and alive. For a dead heart doesn’t hurt with a goodbye, only a heart alive to others feels the pain of that goodbye, the difficulty of leaving….” From the Goodbye section of Between Worlds page 202

On Sunday we said goodbye to our youngest son at the entrance to Hellenic College, a college that has shaped him through academia,service, friendship, and most importantly – faith. 

We said goodbye in early evening, when the sun still had a long while before it set, reflecting golden rays off of Jamaica Pond. 

We said goodbye to the many years of college that come with five children. We said goodbye to the joy we had in watching a child grow to be a man. We said goodbye to those who came into our lives through him. 

A short while after we said goodbye, he boarded a plane to Albania; from there his plans include travel and study for the next year. We raised our children on travel and the uncertainty that comes with frequent moves, so there is a deep satisfaction knowing that he is choosing to grow through travel. 

Letting go of our children is a series of stages that begins early in their lives. We proudly, but fearfully, watch as they make their way onto buses or across playgrounds, their first venture into a world we can no longer control. Each stage and step gives them a bit more independence until we face the reality that we are ancillary to their adult lives. When we began the journey of parenthood, we created their world, we were their world. But through the years we gradually step aside and let them shine, apart from us. 

And our son – he shines, and it is the work of God. 

The gratefulness I feel is complicated by post-surgery exhaustion and the tears from saying goodbye. It comes in waves, and I try not to overthink, over analyze, instead allowing myself to just be, to feel what I’m feeling without defending or accusing. 

A few years ago I wrote these words, and today I repeat them: 

…the best thing I do as I pack him off and say goodbye is place him where I have placed him countless times before — in the arms of the Father. The Father who does not walk, but pulls up his robe and runs to greet his beloved children.

While the journey of parenthood continues until the day we die, there are pivotal turning points within that journey – and this is one of them. So I say goodbye with open arms, a glad heart, and tear-filled eyes. Somehow, all of those emotions belong to this moment. 

We become parents with no guarantees. Whether biologically birthing or adopting, parenthood is a journey of faith. Today I get to celebrate. Tomorrow I may have to cry. But that’s what this is: A long journey, a journey of faith. From A Long Journey, A Journey of Faith