The Goers and the Stayers

We arrived at Logan Airport at 6:30 in the evening after an 18 hour day of flying. We were tired and bleary-eyed, but also excited. We got through immigration in record time and then waited with other weary travelers for our luggage.

Four pieces later we were on our way to pick up a rental car.

The road to our friends home never felt so long. It had been too long and now we were almost there.

We turned the corner onto Essex Street in Hamilton and drove up the dark road. We could not see the beginning signs of spring, even though we knew they were there. We also knew that just ahead was the home of a couple who have walked through life with us for many years.

A few minutes later we had arrived. There in front of us was an unassuming Cape Cod style house with a yellow garage. This was the house where a friendship had flourished for many years. A house that had hosted more hours of talk and laughter than we could possibly count. This house spelled comfort in some of my darkest days and provided refuge from many a New England snow storm.

But what is a house without the people who make it a home? Our friends have stayed as we have gone. They have continually offered shelter and friendship to our wandering feet. They are the roots to our wings and the solid wisdom to our sometimes too restless souls.

They are our stayers and I could not love them more.

The goers need the stayers. The travelers need the port. The ones who pack up and leave for far off places desperately need the ones who wait for them, encourage them, love them, and welcome them back. This couple does that for us and I am so grateful. They have been in our lives for 23 years and they will continue to be our people until our lives on this earth are over. If you are a traveler, find your people and never, ever forget how precious they are.

If you are a goer, find a stayer. If you are a stayer, find a goer. We need each other more than we know.

Someday I will be a stayer, and I will remember how much the goers need me.

“Why?” – On One ‘Why’ Question a Day

“Really?”

I raised my eyebrows as I looked at my husband. “You’re going to waste your one ‘why’ question on this?”

“Doesn’t count!” he said emphatically!

“Does too!” I replied.

“Does not!”

We stood there like two children in the middle of the dusty road in back of our apartment, the afternoon shadows of the mountains creating shade despite no vegetation of any kind. A lone chicken had begun to cross the road toward us, only to confront my husband midway, squawk indignantly, and turn back to the other side.

The ‘why’ question was the age old question with a Kurdish twist: “Why did the Kurdish chicken cross the road?”

It was this that I responded to.

We moved here six weeks ago. After a whirlwind of closing the doors, windows, and chapters on one life, we traveled thousands of miles to a completely new one with little that links it to the old besides us.

We could not be more delighted to be making our home here in Kurdistan. We are in a small city that has welcomed us in wholly and completely and we are grateful. But because we wear our own cultures like body suits, tightly fitted to our form, there are times when we are assaulted by cultural differences, some big and some small.

In an essay “Living Well Where You Don’t Belong” writer Joann Pittman walks through a series of tips for expats who are learning to live well in their adopted countries. It is an excellent article, and well worth keeping bookmarked, but the best advice of all is unforgettable. She gives a numeric limit to the number of ‘why’ questions you are allowed to ask a day. The number is one. That’s right. One ‘why’ question per day. And I will tell you – it is a life saver. It is a marriage saver. It is a friendship saver. And it is genius advice.

She says this: “One of my favorite quirky Hong Kong movies is a mad-cap adventure called “Peking Opera Blues.” The movie itself is entertaining, but the poorly translated “Chinglish” subtitles add to the humor. In one scene, the beautiful damsel enters a garage and finds it littered with dead bodies (the mafia had just paid a visit), and utters (according to the subtitles) ‘WHY IS IT LIKE THIS?’ Those of us who live cross-culturally find this question on the tips of their tongues pretty much all the time. We look are around and see so much that is unfamiliar and confusing and want to shout WHY IS IT LIKE THIS? If the question is driven by a true desire to understand, then it is fine; however, most of the time, it simply means “it’s not like this back home, so it shouldn’t be like this here,” and excessive use of the question just opens the door for a rant. So…make a rule. Only one ‘why’ question per day.”

One ‘why’ question a day.

Think of how many times you ask why in your home culture. Chances are that it is far more than you are aware of. Now think about being removed thousands and thousands of miles from your home culture, and being in a culture where you don’t know the language, the rules, or the culture. Yet still – one ‘why’ a day.

So if I use it poorly, I’m done. Like “Why did it take us three weeks to get our residence permit, and it only took that other expat one day?” No. NO. NO. Bad why question. Bad. Because who knows? And does it really matter? These governmental procedures are way, way out of our control.

It just happened that way, and don’t worry about it. We now have our residence permits. We have our passports. We are happy.

Here’s another ‘why’ question with no answer: “Why did they put our western toilet over a Turkish toilet so it rocks back and forth?” Also not a good ‘why’ question. We will never learn the answer to this.

“Why are you charging us an extra five thousand dinar for our mint lemonade?”

Answer: “Because you had the nuts.”

“But we didn’t ask for the nuts.”

“Okay. Then we won’t charge you the extra money.”

Now that question was a good why question! That question had an answer.

“Why are all the tire stores together?”

Bad. They just are. You might just as well say “Why aren’t the tire stores together in our home country?”

The good ‘why’ questions are the ones that help you better understand your host culture, and thus be able to enjoy and adapt and live effectively within that host culture.

The not so good ‘why’ questions are the ones that are often based on cultural superiority. The ‘we do things better where I come from, so why don’t you change your ways to be like ours?’. This may be painting broad strokes on why questions, but my experience tells me that it is not. When we learn what is behind a particular way of doing things, we are better able to understand it, even if we don’t agree with it.

If we limit ourselves to one ‘why’ question a day, we take ourselves away from constantly questioning and instead put ourselves into a posture of learning.

Let’s face it – there are some places and situations where we could ask ‘why’ all day long. I just left government service in Massachusetts. Believe me, government and state institutions around the world are not that different. There are always too many employees to be efficient. There is always too much bureaucracy, and there are always too many leaders who don’t care. This was true in Massachusetts, and it’s true here. I wasted a lot of time at my job in Massachusetts asking ‘why’. Why, for ten years, did I have no support to go to continuing education events? Why was there so much bureaucracy? Why. Why. Why. I should have limited myself to one ‘why’ question a day while I was there.

Instead I waited until I came to Kurdistan. And in Kurdistan I am enjoying life so much – partly because I have limited myself to one ‘why’ question a day.

So people – One ‘why’ a day! If you’ve crossed cultures it’s a necessity. If you haven’t crossed cultures, try it anyway! I guarantee that your life will change!

Physical Well-being and Cross-Cultural Adjustment

I was sick yesterday. Not laid flat in bed with a high fever sick, but a low grade fever, aches, and general feelings of misery.

I was scheduled to visit the maternal child hospital with the Maternal Child Health Professor- Mamusta Renas. I had been looking forward to this visit, and I was not going to miss it. We arrived at the hospital around nine in the morning. It was already full of patients – younger, pregnant women, children, older women with gynecological problems, and babies. We headed straight to the delivery room, where several nurses were working with patients. One woman was obviously in labor, and flashbacks to my own laboring days brought on waves of empathy. I wished I could coach her through the process and tell her how amazing she was, but “How are you?” and “Stop the mini bus!” and “That’s way too expensive!” is the extent of my Kurdish.

It was as we were heading upstairs to the pediatric ward that I suddenly knew I was going to faint. I leaned against the wall, where a poster warning of the dangerous impact of violence in hospitals to patient care was hung. I thought I would slip to the ground and be completely out but I rallied enough to get to a room. I felt like the woman depicted in the poster – fearful and overwhelmed.

I sat down and drank some cold water, then put my head down. An overwhelming sense of failure added to my nausea and light head. It was awful.

Suddenly I questioned everything. Why did I think I had the capacity to make an international move? Who was I kidding? I was no use to anybody in my passport country, let alone a new place, new people, new job, new language. Plus, I was in the land of Nineveh, where fig trees dry up and wither. Isn’t that what happened to Jonah?

Here I was, sitting in a hospital two hours from the nearest airport, interrupting the learning process of bright and lovely Kurdish students, while one of their teachers sat with me.

Why did I think I could do this?

Physical well-being has a massive impact on our ability to adjust. I remember years ago in Pakistan someone talking to me about how she didn’t know what was wrong. Why was she failing at everything she did? Why was she always tired? Why couldn’t she keep up with even the small things of life? It turned out that my friend had a silent but deadly amoebae wreaking havoc with her body. She was not well. It had nothing to do with ability, or stamina, or resilience. It had everything to do with her physical state. She was diagnosed, given a prescription of that awful and necessary drug we call flagyl, and within one month she was a different person.

As a nurse, I know the importance of paying attention to my body. I also know the importance of not immediately googling my symptoms. I did it anyway. At a minimum I had the flu, with the most serious of my findings pointing to Hepatitis. Ridiculous? Yes, but sometimes we find ourselves giving in to these things.

Last night as tears began to fall over my fruit at dinner time, I didn’t remember anything. I felt like a failure at every level.

So here are some tips for me to remember and maybe they will help you as well!

  • If you’re eating right, sleeping enough, and you still feel tired and that you can’t cope – there may be something physically wrong. Get checked!
  • You are not a failure. You are human, made of flesh and blood, cells and vessels. Sometimes you get sick. This happens in countries where you know the language perfectly, and in countries where you don’t know the language at all. Take extra time to rest and get well.
  • Everything is harder when you are sick. Language, understanding culture cues, figuring out food and food substitutes, even making a decent cup of tea feels harder.
  • Give yourself space and a break. Cry. Sleep. Drink tea. Mourn and lament the world. Ask for help – such a difficult thing to do! Sleep some more.
  • Sometimes it takes only a day to feel better…. other times it takes longer. I woke up this morning feeling so much better. I’m not at my full capacity, but I no longer feel like I’m going to faint. I don’t have a fever. I see the world through a different lens and I clearly don’t have the flu or hepatitis.

I’m in a different place today, but this will come again because of the ‘flesh and blood, broken world, our bodies don’t always cooperate’ reality. And Grace enters this reality.

Grace – that space between failure and success, that space where cross-cultural workers are always invited into, a space that makes a burden light and a yoke easy.

Speak Out Loud

Keep in mind to speak out loud the works of God! As you transition with your soul mate it will be good to hear your voices remembering what God has done…*

One month ago we left the United States with 8 suitcases, two carry on bags, and two hearts that were open to whatever awaited us. We arrived in Kurdistan two days later and since that time have been creating home in the small city of Rania. Many of the words I have used in the past fail me as I begin learning to live and love in this part of the world.

Our move is an unexpected answer to a heart desire that I have had for many years. The longing that I have had to return to the Middle East has never completely gone away. It was like Baba Gurgur, the eternal flames of Kirkuk, always there just above the ground. “Just two more years!” I would write in my journal. Just give me two more years. “Why just two?” my husband asked at one point. I don’t know. All I know is that’s what I’ve been asking for. Anything more felt like it was audacious.

As I think about all that went into our move it strikes me as nothing short of miraculous. The fact that we were both offered jobs at the same institution; that our landlord responded graciously to our leaving; that the timing coincided with me being able to take retirement from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts; that our friends and family were supportive even as they expressed their sadness that we would not be a daily part of their lives; that we were able to sort and pack up ten and twenty years of stuff without going insane; mostly that God was so present in and through all of it.

And though I speak of writing in my journal “just two more years”, I will confess that it has been years since I have truly brought my desires to God. What’s the use of speaking your desires? How does it help? My every day thoughts most resembled a slightly optimistic fatalism, an “oh well, it doesn’t really matter what I long for, because it won’t happen” thinking. It was my sister-in-law, Carol, who gently confronted me on this, and when she did, I knew the unmistakable feel of hot tears on my cheeks. I had begun to cry. I remember hanging up the phone and crying and crying, tears brought about by the realization that I had held my desires in a tight fist, subconsciously believing that they didn’t matter and that God didn’t care.

It was one year ago when this happened. I remember crying for what seemed like a long time. In reality, it was probably only a short hour. At the end of my tears I was exhausted. I also had determined some things. I had determined that Cambridge was a good, actually great, place to live, that if I never went overseas again it really would be okay, and that my fist was tired, so very tired. I was tired of holding all of this in. Tired of not believing. Tired of being tired. Tired of thinking there was some magical formula that only existed overseas.

My life changed in ways outsiders would never have seen, but I saw and I knew. I had one of the best work years that I have had in a long time. Friendships were strengthened, I was more active, and I drank deeply from the well of orthodoxy through my parish at Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church.

And now, a year later, I wake up every day in Kurdistan in Northern Iraq. I am learning to live again in a part of the world I love. I am reviving invisible skills that lay dormant for many years while in the United States — things like finding substitutes for recipes, peeling pomegranates, putting the flour in the freezer to kill the bugs, bargaining at the market, and trying to grasp the nuances of a new language. I am center stage to the most hospitable people on the planet. I pick pomegranates and figs off of trees at a friend’s garden. I laugh and learn from Kurds who have opened their lives and homes to us. I stretch my legs and muscles as I sit on the floor for hours of talk, food, and tea. I eat savory kebabs wrapped in bread with raw onions and tomatoes. I wake up every day to sunshine and the call to prayer.

And everyday I realize anew the need to speak out loud what God has done, speak out loud what it took to get us here, speak out loud thanksgiving.

Speak out loud the miracles that happened so quietly it might be easy to forget.

*from Carol Brown – my sister-in-law in Istanbul.

On Waiting…

Jenni Gate - Waiting

We are sitting in a government office in Suleimaniyah (commonly called Suli) and we are waiting. We left Rania at seven in the morning. The sun had already welcomed the day and a beautiful breeze accompanied us on our walk to the university.

The road between Rania and Suli begins as a one lane, heavily trafficked highway. Even early in the morning cars, trucks, and lorries are moving fast. Traffic in this part of the world is not for the fainthearted. There are few rules and those who observe them are much more likely to get hurt than the rest of us. Until we reach Dukan, a small city beside a winding river, the road is narrow and crowded with little room to pass. At Dukan it widens and becomes much more comfortable for those in the back seat of an old Toyota pickup truck.

We get to the residency office in Suli and this is where the waiting begins. People are scurrying here and there, some of them lawyers or handlers, others are people like us who don’t have a clue what they are doing. What we do know is that we need to be here and we need to behave. We are guests in a country and mama always said that guests need to behave. The busy looking people have a lot of paper and a lot of passports in their care, and it matters what they say and what they do with the paper and the passports. They are our go betweens. While we must perfect the art of waiting, they must perfect the art of acting and doing. They understand both the language and the process, and we desperately need them.

Black numbers mark small cubicles where government workers, separated by glass, interview or authoritatively stamp approval or disapproval on official looking papers. This is Kurdistan, so the number of people smiling far exceeds the number who look grumpy. I love this and feel an affinity with Kurds in their generally optimistic outlook on life. They have much to teach the world about waiting and about hope.

There is a lot of waiting in this building. My colleague makes the insightful observation that knowing you are waiting for something automatically changes the quality of time you have. If I suddenly had this long stretch of time at home, I would be delighted. There would be so many things I could do and so much possibility created by knowing I have extra time. Not so when I am forced to wait. Suddenly I feel paralyzed and can’t do anything.

Just before we left Massachusetts we ended up at the Division of Motor Vehicles, non-affectionately called the DMV by those in the know. The line for the DMV went out the door and down the hallway to a nearby Target store. It was a nightmare. In any country, in any language, government bureaucracy looks similar. What changes is whether you know what’s going on or not, otherwise the lack of ability to control what goes on is exactly the same. And world-wide the approach is similar with these four rules:

  • Be as nice as possible without seeming like you are trying to butter your way onto the bureaucracy toast
  • Have just the appropriate degree of assertiveness
  • Say please and thank you
  • Whenever possible make people smile.

In any country and in any language there is another universal truth: the truth of waiting. Waiting. Suspended between. Not sure when you’ll be able to leave or if you will leave with what you came for.

We wait. Always we wait. It’s a universal experience, one that will not be over until our final breath. Airport terminals, hospitals, and government office buildings are just a few of the spaces where we live in the limbo of the “not yet arrived.”

Sometimes we wait patiently and other times we are impatient. Sometimes we wait with a good sense of humor while other times we are grumpy. Sometimes we wait with anticipation and other times we wait with dread.

While I am waiting for a residency permit, you may be suspended between a blood test and a diagnosis; a job interview and a job offer; a visa application and a stamp of approval; a pregnancy test and a definitive little pink line; an abnormal mammogram and a biopsy; an offer on a house and an acceptance of the offer; a child who is far away and their homecoming; a journey or question of faith and an answer.

May you know the song of the waiting one. May you be able to rest despite your nerves and your tears; may you be able to trust against the odds; may your imagination be enfolded in grace; may your heart rest in the knowledge that in all the waiting, there is one who waits with you.

May you know grace and peace in the margins of waiting. 

“Above all, we wait for God. We move forward in faith, only to be stopped in transit. So we wait. It’s not time. We sit tight. There are dozens of ways that God moves in an orchestrates our plans, our movements. We may never know the reason for the waiting – they may elude us until the day we die and we’re on the other side of eternity.” 

For waiting is nothing new to the work of God.

“And so I wait [in a government building], thinking of this God who reaches through time and place and asks us to be okay in the in-between, to trust his character and his love. Giving thanks to a God who is utterly trustworthy and completely unpredictable, a God who knows all about waiting as he daily waits for his children to finally get it.” from “Mumbai Airport” in Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging

5 Newton Street – a Love Story

5 Newton Street,

Cambridge, MA 02139

It was ten and a half years ago when I first walked through your front door. I will never forget the day – December 18, and Boston was experiencing the worst winter they had had in five years. Snow was piled high around you – your porch barely passable – and it was so cold.

My oldest daughter, who had moved to Boston a couple of months before, came running out your door, capturing me with one of her famous hugs. She hugs like she means it, like she’ll never, ever let you go and it is bliss.

And then I walked through the white painted door and into your long hallway.

You and me….we were an arranged marriage of sorts. You had good bones and I had a good family, and we grew to love each other.

We met each other, shy at first, neither of us were sure of each other. After all, we found each other on Craigslist, and all I knew was that you claimed to be “sunny and bright”. I was moving from Phoenix, Arizona to a bitter cold Northeast winter. You had no idea how much I needed bright and sunny. That first night I think you sized me up and decided that I would do. Admittedly, it took me a while longer.

I traded in a large, open floor plan, designer paint, and a sparkling, blue pool for a city condo with noisy upstairs neighbors. Our oversized, Arizona furniture cramped your style; our massive candle sticks had to find another home. I fought with you for more space, cursing your small corners, but you didn’t budge.

But we began to live together and slowly, like an arranged marriage, I began to love you.

I began to love your location, so close to everything! With you I could walk everywhere! Grocery store, pharmacy, subway – even the beautiful Charles River with its banks that changed with the seasons. I painted your walls and hung pictures that made you shine. I draped white lights on your porch, a bright beacon in the sometimes dark nights of life. I plumped pillows on couches and put furniture in your rooms.

And we began to live, really live within your walls. You began to know our family and your halls and walls heard our laughter and held our tears. Thanksgivings, Christmases, and Easter celebrations brought people from all over the world into your safety and joy. We played games and discussed politics; dyed Easter eggs and carved pumpkins; brought Christmas trees from the Boston Tree Company, and lit candles amidst holiday sparkle. You gave space for graduation celebrations and expanded as our family grew.

It wasn’t all sparkle. You heard sadness and witnessed anger; sometimes our tears were more than we could bear and you held us in safety when we couldn’t let the wider world know what was going on. But still, you and we held on.

And now, we are taking you – our home – and turning you back into a house. If I wasn’t so busy, and if I didn’t know that this next step is a good and important one, it would break me.

You, with your old wood floors and your non updated bathrooms, hold the magic of Home. And you are being stripped of that magic by me – your nomadic love.

I’m so sorry. You’ve been so good to us. You have loved us well through over ten years of life. You have been a place of safety, joy, and laughter.

Your walls will hold our family stories forever and, like a dear and loyal friend, keep them safe.

Your windows bear the marks of our noses, pressed against them looking out onto the world.

Your hallway and stairwell will echo our footsteps, like ghosts coming back for one last look.

And your porch? Your porch will carry the magic of late summer night laughter and conversation, the sounds of the city a musical background.

You have loved us well dear house. You have loved us well.

And now, I say goodbye. May the joy and grace that has held us be passed on to those coming through your doors.

Goodbye 5 Newton. I will always love you.

That Magic Word – Home

My younger daughter was recently in Toronto at the wedding of a friend. On return she had some difficulty with her ticket and had to go early to the airport in order to clear it up. As she was talking to a woman in security, she said “I just want to get home.”

Responding with wisdom, empathy, and an accent that indicated she knew the truth of her words, she said: “Somehow I understand that magic word – ‘Home’”

Throughout childhood we hear this word, used in various ways and forms.

Are we home yet?”

“How long until we get home?”

“I can’t wait to get home!”

“I hate leaving home.”

“It’s so good to be home!”

And then adulthood comes, and home becomes more complicated even if you don’t mean it to be. Is home where you grew up? Where your parents live? Where you now live? Where you are raising your family, or all of those combined?

You return home and home has changed, as have you. You leave, unsettled and discombobulated, happy to be leaving and sad that you are happy.

As life moves on, you become the one responsible for creating home, and in that space, home sometimes loses its purity and its magic. When we were little, magic and home happened. When we’re big, someone has to create it. Yet somehow along the way, most of us figure that out. We learn that home and what Wendell Berry calls “membership” are an incredible privilege, and we grow to protect that privilege. We learn that our connection to place matters, and our keeping of that place is vital for mental and physical health. Home may no longer feel like magic, but it has become so much more.

It is our anchor in a world that is fickle and our bridge that equips us to cross over to the outside.

Home. That place where we learn our first stories, where we lose teeth and grow inches, where we play and fight with siblings and grow nostalgic over time. For some, it is geographic; for others it is people, memories, and events that span the globe.

And one thing is sure–there is never more magic in the word then when we’ve been away, and we get to go back.

Home wasn’t a set house, or a single town on a map. It was wherever the people who loved you were, whenever you were together. Not a place, but a moment, and then another, building on each other like bricks to create a solid shelter that you take with you for your entire life, wherever you may go.”*

*Sarah Dessen, What Happened to Goodbye