When You Can’t Settle in the Place You Call Home

It just doesn't go away

A couple of years ago, an anonymous letter came to Communicating Across Boundaries. The letter began like this:

It just doesn’t go away….

The writer goes on to speak of an unsettled weariness and dissatisfaction, a boredom with life in one’s passport country. “I’m afraid I may have a chronic case of ennui. Most of the time the symptoms lie dormant but occasionally—when my routines are disturbed, when life is a little off kilter, when friends are traveling, —they flare up, these “feeling(s) of weariness and dissatisfaction: boredom.” 

The letter appeals to readers at Communicating Across Boundaries, asking for their help and advice. “Can you help me?” says the writer. Can you help me with this “…hard to shake thing that lingers inside me–this grief-adrenaline withdrawal-unsettled-restlessness at work in my soul.”

The answers to the letter were kind and thoughtful. Above all – they were wise. 

I’ve included some of those responses below in case there are others who just can’t shake that feeling of not settling in the places we are supposed to call home.

_____________________

“There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone (or some place) dear to us, and one should not attempt to do so.

One must simply hold out and endure it.

At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is also a great comfort.

For to the extent the emptiness truly remains unfilled one remains connected to the
other person through it.

It is wrong to say that God fills the emptiness. God in no way fills it but much more
leaves it precisely unfilled and thus helps us preserve – even in pain – the authentic
relationship.

Further more, the more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the
separation.

But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer as offered by Bettie Addleton.

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“I can feel this thing she is talking about in my own heart as I read this letter. Sometimes it feels like a heavy, numbing complacency and sometimes like a boiling frustration, or a deep, dark pit of sadness. I call my own by many names: sometimes loss, sometimes darkness, sometimes just an unsettled spirit. I tell myself over and over to “be still”. But usually I accept it as an uncomfortable advantage that I know deep within me that this is not my home and that I long for something more, something so much more fulfilling, so much deeper, so much brighter, so much better, a real and honest home, a place to belong….I think I’ve just come to accept it and allow it to exist. Not let it take over, not let it pull me under (when I can). I just nod at it in the corner, acknowledge that it is there, and then take deep breaths, smile at someone, sometimes let some pressure out with tears, and keep moving forward knowing that one day it will not sit in that corner anymore.Art helps. Beauty helps. Poetry, paintings, sunsets, songs, laughter.” Maia Manchester 

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To me, this feeling is the result of the accumulation of all the places and people I gave my heart to in my childhood of travel, but which I either can’t see now, or can only visit very occasionally…it is a build-up of losses (even though they were all joys before)–some of which are permanent losses.

Those people have gone or the places have changed, some because of war and destruction. Also there is the simple fact that I cannot be in multiple places at the same time. And so every current happiness has a tinge of sadness. Il y quelque chose qui manque…a little bit of grief that gnaws away at every happiness. I also found it got strongest during the couple of years when I realized I had spent more time now in my “home” country than in any other place, and yet still did not feel at home. I wish I could say it is cured, but it does diminish a bit, as I make more connections here and as I lower my expectations of travel. Finding a friend who has somewhat the same background would be a great help I feel too. And finally, it is one of the reasons I hang onto “the hope of glory” because surely in heaven we will feel completely at home and we’ll be at once with so many loved ones too. – Mauareen

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The Portuguese word ‘Saudade’ also comes to mind along with ennui. I experience some of those same feelings. There is a longing in me to bring all the pieces of this mobile life tapestry together for a sense of wholeness, NOW, that is actually impossible in our time/space continuum. How often do I feel out of round? Too much for comfort. But the hope that there is more; completeness, integrality, lasting joy beyond the current fabric of our existence is a golden lifeline- an anchor for my soul.

to embrace the story of who I am and where I come from – which may mean digging into it,even in the dark corners and closed boxes

Growing up between US and Kenya and then living in US and Asia, I sometimes think of that dissatisfaction as a curse and sometimes as a gift. The curse is that it sneaks in to the best of times like family reunions with food, stories, laughter, play and unconditional acceptance. That ‘thick sadness’ lurks at the edges that ‘this will not last’ and it will hurt when we go our disparate ways. At other times the curse is to observe situations as a perpetual outsider, finding it difficult just to ‘enter in’. And then there is the sorrow over the losses. Even when the Acceptance target of grief processing has been seemingly been hit, ‘Mission accomplished, sir!’ I find that triggers can throw me back into the grief process. It hurts and saps energy.

The gift for me is knowing that life is full and there is a spectrum of Joy and Pain. No banality exists when I can fully feel. Another is that being discontent can launch me into caring for others. If I can feel it, I can empathize with you. And I am reminded that this world is not my final home- that seems clear as I observe my own brokenness and that of the world around me- if we are broken, there must be something better that we are longing for, else how would we even imagine that?

Some strategies as I look to ‘the best that is to come’ are working towards that better picture to the best of my abilities, to choose love over fear, faith over pride and hope over despair.

For me it is choosing:

  • to be grateful, daily
  • to serve others in their difficulties and challenges
  • to care as well as I can for myself- sleep, exercise, diet, reading, prayer etc. (I think TCK/global nomad types need to take depression seriously!)
  • to get help when I need it – the doctor, counselor, coach, listening friend (I hear my wife saying my theory is better than my practice but I’m improving, I think :)
  • to embrace the story of who I am and where I come from, (which may mean digging into it, even in the dark corners and closed boxes) and to find others who resonate with that story and then feel open to sharing theirs. – Mike Pollock

Readers – what would you add? What helps you? Thank you for sharing!

Song of Homesickness

Lightbulb

“There are many more sushi bars in Santa Barbara than I ever see in Kyoto, and my friends are all talking there of giving things up, going back to the country, finding a self that my Japanese neighbors have never had a chance to lose.

It’s a song of homesickness they’re singing silently, perhaps, and sometimes it seems to rhyme with the songs of longing, or restlessness that surround me on the far side of the globe.” Pico Iyer

***

When I’m homesick, I long for the smells, sights and sounds of Pakistan or the Middle East.

When I’m homesick, I long for the rhythm of the trains of my childhood. I shut my eyes on the subway and pretend I’m on the Khyber Pass Train, winding it’s way from the Sindh region to Rawalpindi station with stops along the way for passengers and chai. I smell jasmine and immediately I am on the banks of the Nile River, a vendor attempting to sell me garlands as I laughingly refuse, only to be cajoled into the purchase minutes later. I eat a curry and am transported to the Marhaba restaurant where curry and chapattis are served and you don’t have to pay for more sauce or more chapattis. I cry as I realize how rusty my language skills are and long to be back where I am using them daily.

When I’m homesick, I hear about a flood or a revolution and instead of thinking “Wow, I’m glad I’m not there,” I rush to my computer trying to find cheap tickets that will take me closer to the disaster.

When I’m homesick, I sit at my desk, lost in memory, saudade gripping my heart. When I’m homesick, it’s never for places in the United States. It’s always for places far away, across oceans and continents. It comes with the surprise and might of an earthquake – unpredictable and initially paralyzing. I stumble along, ever between two worlds, never quite enough for either.

I have not been homesick for a long time, but yesterday afternoon, in an Indian store on a hot summer day, my heart felt a distant yearning and I knew what was coming. I knew that it was homesickness. Or rather, saudade – that yearning for what no longer exists. The smell of samosa frying, the pungent aroma of a myriad of colorful spices, and a store owner who was chatting in Hindi on the phone were the sounds and smells of a world I left behind.

But then, as quickly as the feelings came, they left.  I found myself alone and slightly disoriented, at home only in my yearning in the midst of a crowd on a busy, city street.

***

I wake up thinking that I heard the call to prayer and suddenly realize that this is impossible. The closest mosque is several miles from my home, and because of a noise ordinance there is no way even neighbors of the mosque will hear the sound. I sigh, and, for a moment, allow the pieces of my memory to come together, giving into a longing that is always lurking in the background.

I resolutely get up, my heart filled with profound gratitude. Gratitude that I have been able to live in, and experience, places that grab my heart and won’t let it go. 

***

“I exist where I am, always between communities, always between places. I’ve found home in the yearning.” – @i_saleem

It Just Doesn’t Go Away

IMG_5986It just doesn’t go away – written anonymously

This week at Communicating Across Boundaries we received this letter. We’re putting it out there and inviting you our readers to help us know how to respond.

I’m appealing to my community out there who grew up with Where There Is No Doctor or The Village Medical Manual. I need your help. It seems that I have developed this thing. It’s a malaise of sorts and it lives deep inside me, down at the bottom of my soul, in the lurking murky waters. I don’t know how to really even describe it. It’s thick and tangible. It washes over me and erodes joy and contentment at times when I least expect it.  

I’m afraid I may have a chronic case of ennui. Most of the time the symptoms lie dormant but occasionally—when my routines are disturbed, when life is a little off kilter, when friends are traveling, —they flare up, these “feeling(s) of weariness and dissatisfaction: boredom.”

What advice can you give me? What prescription would you write? Are there home remedies you would suggest?

I’ve tried ignoring it. I look away. I pretend I didn’t see it. The shadows out of the corner of my eye are just shadows, I reason. In the ignoring it does seem to shrink, I think, a little. And just when I get excited that maybe it’s vanishing, maybe it’s gone, it bubbles up again inside of me. Very. Much. There.

I’ve tried exterminating it. I’ve tried talk therapy. I’ve imagined exorcisms and interventions. I’ve tried waking up and pretending I’m normal. I’ve wished it away, washed it away, worked it away. But alas, to no avail. It always seems to comes back.

I’m afraid it’s chronic.

What do you think is wrong with me?

Is it an addiction to adrenaline? Am I just longing for adventure and excitement? Am I looking for something to look forward to?

It is residual grief and sorrow that comes from a life of perpetual transition. Too many goodbyes. Too many separations. Is it merely thick sadness?

Is it restlessness? Is there in me another type of biological clock ticking and tocking telling me it’s time travel again? to move far away? Am I somehow unquieted, unsettled? Am I really just bored?

To be honest I think it’s all those things. I’ve lived, by God’s complete grace and kindness, most of my life in a bigger playground. I grew up in Asia, graduated from college in North America, met my husband in the United States, we spent the first years of our married life back in Asia. It’s been a grand life. We’ve seen a lot of places, had coffee in a lot of cafes, traveled on a lot of airplanes. It’s hard to settle down. And although we’ve lived in the United States for almost a decade, it’s still hard to shake this thing that lingers inside me–this grief-adrenaline withdrawal-unsettled-restlessness at work in my soul.

I’m appealing to you whatever your medical training may be: doctor, nurse practitioner, midwife, chiropractor, auyrovedist, naturopath, homeopath, quackyopath. What remedy do you have for me? My symptoms seem intense these days. I need your advice!

Can you relate? What would you suggest? How have you pushed past this in your own story? Marilyn and I would love to hear from you.

In Which We Talk About ‘Longing’

One year ago I wrote a piece called “An Unappeased Yearning to Return.” The piece was based on the roots of the word ‘nostalgia.’

The responses were beautiful – thoughtful, poignant, true. They were your voices! You all expressed so much. It doesn’t mean that you aren’t happy, it doesn’t mean that you are maladjusted, it doesn’t mean that you pine daily in a back room, longing for the past. It just means that you loved a place and the people in that place and there are times when you need to express it.

So here are your voices from that post. Thank you for your words!

minarets-at-dusk quote

“...it isn’t really that we want the country we left behind. We just want all of the perfect things to be able to come together in one place. And the fact that they can’t is like putting together a puzzle that’s missing half of the pieces.” Bryana Joy

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“The yearning for me is for another time and another place. The hard thing is to know that even if I was to physically go back to Pakistan, those memories will not be present because buildings have changed, people have moved on. There’s a sense of loss in that those things can never be gone back to, never recaptured or re-experienced, even if other new and equally enjoyable things are in their place.” Sophie from Little Gumnut

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“Sometimes the longing is so strong, it takes my breath away. For the places, for the people, for the way things used to be. But, as you say, most of the time, it is under the surface and I tick along doing all the things I’m meant to do and being happy about them. The longing is an undercurrent, but we can’t let it pull us under. It can most certainly be a gift if it reminds us to reach out to others who may be in danger of drowning.” Stacy from Food Lust, People Love

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“Seems the roots of my Nostalgia always lead me to my Identity. And if I am no longer “there”, that place I can no longer BE, am I still who I thought I was?? Of course, the question is rhetorical – So I sit, perhaps at my computer at work, gazing past the grey earth, shorn of its snow-mantle, seeing beyond the un-born spring, into the past. The nostalgia emerges. A mist-covered lake. – I guess the difficult thing about identity is that those we love can never truly know who we are and from where we came. Because our journey is jut that. Our own. It can feel isolating. But I choose to nurture the compassion that thrives in nostalgic soil, allowing it to drive me to connect with others. To hear.

Their story. Their song.

All because there is One Who does know me. And because there will be a time when I will know, even as I am Known.” Sylvia

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“I have never admitted this, but I used to get the sick-in-the-pit-of-your-stomach homesickness until well into my 20’s. I don’t know why, but I do often feel the longing for what “no longer is”, and sometimes I feel a longing but I’m not even sure what for!” Hillary

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“The Orthodox understanding of the Fall in Genesis is more about yearning than about guilt – it is this sense that there IS somewhere we fully belong, but this is not quite it. And I think your point about embracing nostalgia as something that can connect us to others and make us more compassionate is so good. It is easy to feel that unusual experiences set one apart, but the truth is that EVERYONE experiences loss and yearning, we are ALL travelers far from home.” Thea Wallace

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“I have a longing to return to Pakistan or even India that I don’t see any way of fulfilling. In part I satisfied that longing by writing “Captives of Minara,” and in part when we make curry or have the family together and get samosas. Partly it eases when we go to an South Asian restaurant.” Eric Wright

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“Recently, I am experiencing this [longing] from the perspective of a mom whose sons have grown up and started their adult lives. Looking back at pictures of a time and a family (our family) to which there is no returning. The gift is in knowing what we shared…and the places and faces with which we shared our family times. And in the yearning for what we shared comes a prayer for what I hope lives on inside each of them to share with the friends and family they have join them on their journeys through life.” Delana

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“A dear friend, a sister in the faith, is dying. She is so ready to go HOME, home to be with Jesus. As I was dropping off to sleep last night, I felt tears rolling down my cheeks. I thought of her daughter who died years ago at 27, the 2 stillborn grandsons she never saw, of her husband gone for several years. Such a joyful reunion to be anticipating. Most of all I thought of her finally being face to face with Jesus, the Savior she has loved and served. So my tears were mixed, tears of joy for my sister, my friend and tears for the pain and loss of death.
Does this sound disconnected from this post on nostalgia, that pain of longing for some other place? I believe our longings, our nostalgia in this life are related to that deeper longing for a permanent place, a longing that God has put into our hearts.
“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men.” Ecclesiastes 3:11″ Polly Brown aka my mom

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“Just today I read a quote by Barbara Brown Taylor (Learning to Walk in the Dark) that goes along with this thought. ‘After so many years of trying to cobble together a way of thinking about God that makes sense so that I can safely settle down with it, it all turns to noda. There is no permanently safe place to settle. I will always be at sea, steering by stars. Yet as dark as this sounds, it provides relief, because it now sounds truer than anything that came before.’ Amen to Ecclesiastes 3:11.” Bettie Addleton

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“I particularly loved this line and paragraph, ‘But for more people it sits in the soul, under the surface, not affecting activities of daily living, but silently accompanying us wherever we go.’ – that’s so true, and I’m glad you reminded me that it’s ok to feel this. Thank you for reassuring me that I can feel that longing but still be present where I am, that they do not negate one another. Sometimes we forget that, so thank you for reminding me of this: ‘we can be content and well-adjusted to a place and yet still have a longing for the places we came from, the places where we will never return.'” Dounia from TCKNextStop

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So there you have it – your voices, your thoughts, written to encourage all of us. Thank you! 

Others – what would you add to the topic of nostalgia and longing? You can take a look at the original post here. 

What Did You Leave Behind? A Post for the TCK

We’ve been asked where we are from.

We’ve been asked if it’s good to be ‘home.’ 

We’ve been asked what ‘it’ was like ‘over there.’

But have you ever been asked what you left behind? 

I haven’t. Ever. I don’t think my kids have ever been asked either.

But it’s such a good question. Because maybe, just maybe, if we can be honest about what we left behind, we can press forward to what we have now, press forward to what is ahead. So today, I’m asking you. No matter when you left, whether it be two months ago, a year ago, or ten to twenty years – what did you leave behind?

Nina Sichel in a post written for the Morning Zen says this at the end of it:

“Kathleen Gilbert has researched grief among TCKs, and writes, ‘Losses that are not successfully resolved in childhood have an increased likelihood of recurring in adulthood… For TCKs, questions about who they are, what they are, where they are from, what and who they can trust are examples of existential losses with which they must cope. And the way in which they process these losses will change, or may even wait until long after their childhood.’


So when she comes to you, don’t ask her where she’s from, or what’s troubling her. Ask her where she’s lived. Ask her what she’s left behind. Open doors. And just listen. Give her the time and space and permission she needs to remember and to mourn. She has a story — many stories. And she needs and deserves to be heard, and to be healed, and to be whole.”

So what did you leave behind? May we share, and in sharing, be heard, be healed, be whole.

Blogger’s note: I would love to use some of your responses in a future piece called “The Things We Left Behind.” Would you share and be willing to have your words shared again?

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The Third Culture Kid Dictionary

third culture kid dictionary

Words are important. We use them everyday, all day. They describe what we want, what we think, how we feel and a myriad of other things. Language, words are an amazing communication tool.

Take the term TCK or third culture kid. Many don’t know the definition of this term. While there are a couple of different definitions, this is my favorite: “A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.” American Sociologist – David C. Pollock

There are some words that describe better than others the TCK journey. Some of them don’t exist in the English language, so for the English speaker we rely on words from other places, languages. In this post I’ve compiled twenty words that I believe best describe the TCK experience. Some are funny, some are sad, but all work well when we struggle to articulate our particular journey.

Third Culture Kid Dictionary:

Adopted country – Those countries that take us in and raise us as one of their own, yet we know we don’t ultimately belong to them.

Adult Third Culture People – Our parents, or other people who have chosen to make another country their home for a long period of time. Unlike the TCK whose developmental years are formed through living in a country other than their passport country, this person is a fully developed adult when they make this decision. Thus the difference in perspective.

Belonging – That sense of being a part of something that we long for and wish for but that seems to elude us, always remaining just outside of our grasp.

Code – switching – The process that goes on internally while we are interacting with people from other countries and cultures to determine how to best communicate with them.

Cultural Confusion – What happens when we are faced with pop culture or culture cues that we are supposed to understand from our passport culture, but realize we are clueless as to their meaning.

Fernweh – originates from German. Distance Pain. The sense or feeling of wanting to be somewhere else. A reverse homesickness, a longing for a place that isn’t where you are right now.

Goodbye – That word which we don’t like to say, that action which we don’t like to do.

Hiareth – Welsh word with no English equivalent that is best translated as “a homesickness tinged with grief or sadness over the lost or departed.” Often spoken of as a wistfulness or longing for something of the past that no longer exists.

“Home” – that ambiguous place where either our cat lives or our suitcase is unpacked. Not necessarily a geographic location but a place defined by memories, events, people and places that span the globe.

Identity – A government document issued by our countries of citizenship that indicates all the countries we have visited or lived – otherwise known as a passport.

Invisible Immigrant – understanding the migrant experience to another country yet being seen outwardly as one who is originally from that country; that sense of having much in common with the immigrant experience and yet looking so much like those around us that we are assumed to be one of the crowd. Our immigrant sensibilities are invisible.

Language of Elsewhere – A language without grammar or syntax, past tense or present perfect or superlatives. The language of ‘other’ best spoken with  tea, coffee, talk, meals, reaching out, asking questions, sometimes shopping, most of all – time.

Nostalgia – a longing for the past that we have created, the one that helps us escape our current reality; a suffering “caused by an unappeased yearning to return.”

Saudade – Portuguese word – a “vague and constant desire for something or someone that does not or cannot exist. Not a discontent but a vague and indolent longing.”

Killing the Saudade – the act of getting together with those who understand your ‘saudade’ and reminiscing or participating in some activity reminiscent of your past (eg eating a meal at a restaurant that serves food from your adopted country). This can kill those feelings – for a while.

Sun-drenched Elsewheres – The opposite of a sedentary life; those places that we are haunted by and dream of going to.

Third culture kid envy – The sense of ill will that rises in us like bile when others are traveling to or writing books about those places that we consider as our own.

Third culture kid bigotry (or prejudice) – The unfortunate “I am better than you” that can arise as a result of feeling ‘other’ and manifest itself in various ways, occurs primarily in our passport culture.

Third culture kid grief – That grief that is a result of too many goodbyes, too much change, and unspoken sorrow.

Tribe – Our people, our group of other third culture kids from varying countries and nationalities that share a common language and experience.

What would you add to these words? What other words are a crucial part of the TCK lexicon? 

Picture credit: Word art Marilyn R. Gardner and picture from http://pixabay.com/en/definition-word-dictionary-text-390785/