Spiritual Formation, Travel

The puzzle of many homes

Photo by PeterDargatz, public domain
Photo by PeterDargatz, public domain

In honor of our dear friends on their return to the Midwestern home they left long ago. May the many gifts of a life lived between worlds be theirs in abundance.

I am not a Third Culture Kid. I have one home with deep roots and long histories and pictures-on-the-wall-for-decades. But I have left home, and sometimes it makes me wonder who I am now that I have parted ways with the place that cradled me as a child. It knows nothing of my new reality. It spins in place, repeating the same stories generation after generation.

My world is different now. It is filled with places my childhood mind could have never imagined. There are street tacos, saris, homeless people, loud music, dusty streets, freeways, endless plane rides and too many languages to count. It is not the big skies and broad cornfields I once knew.

I return to the cornfields one summer and a day after I arrive, I have a dream:

My husband and children are aboard a sinking ship. Anxiously awaiting their rescue, I am safe on shore. Finally rescued, they stagger off a lifeboat into my arms. My heart breathes deep relief at their presence with me.

As the dream replays in my mind, the painful reality dawns on me that my home was their sinking ship, and I am so-very-relieved they didn’t drown there. It is a conflicting reality I don’t always know how to navigate. The land that cradled me so gently had not done the same for them; it had nearly drowned them.

Who am I in this place? I wonder.

More than any other place, it has carved the majority of my days. It will always be home and yet it may never become home again. I am an outlier now. I live amongst the freeways, alongside the sea, in the shadow of the movie stars and the mountains. My family spans the whole-world-wide. My children’s friends are Chinese and Filipino and Caucasian and Vietnamese and African-American and Mexican and Chilean and too many blends to count. My students and my neighbors come from even more corners of the globe…Syria, Albania, Egypt, El Salvador, Samoa, Italy, Vietnam, Pakistan. In the space of just one week, we can eat Malaysian curry, Mexican tamales, Lebanese kabobs, Peruvian chicken, Japanese boba, Portuguese peri-peri, and an In-n-Out double double animal-style.

It is in this journey from a cornfield-mind to a global one that I taste the reality of those who have known many homes but belong to none. Tears brim as I mourn the loss of what once was, but beneath my sorrow simmers more. On this path of many homes, I am learning resilience, beauty, and humility in ways I have never before known. It teaches me to walk toward the unknown, to reach for a hand in the dark, to surrender my privilege.

By faith, Abraham left his home and went to a land he did not know. 

Me too, Abe.  Me too. 

I wonder how Abraham, Sarah, his sons and daughters felt when they left their own cornfield. Did tears brim for the loved ones they left behind, for the relationships that would never quite be the same again? Did they struggle to learn the language and navigate the foreign culture? Did they ever long for the familiar-that-once-was?

I am not a global nomad. Instead I am something of a global pioneer – the first-in-my-line making many corners of the earth my home while my roots remain buried deep in a soil far away.

swirl

Everything changes; everything stays the same.

It is a paradox I now know well.

I fit and I don’t fit.

I belong and I stick out.

I understand completely and I am utterly baffled.

There is no longer any box. Lines established long ago are blurred now. I am left in a world wide open with unclean boundaries and shadows in every shade of gray, no longer the clean blacks-and-whites of just one place.

And God saw all that he had made and it was good, the highways whisper softly as I traverse the country from coast to cornfield to coast. Surely God intended some of us to stay and some of us to go, some to plant and some to tend, some seeds to grow deep roots and others to float on the wind. It is a purpose that we struggle to accept when we leave behind loved ones and familiar lands. Yet with each new home, I can’t help but wonder if part of this plan is, in Parker Palmer’s words, “to think the world together”.

swirl

My feet have known the silky soil of a freshly plowed field, the dusty chaos of the developing world, the cement sterility of the city, the pristine lawns of the suburbs. These days, I am less perplexed by this world’s diversity and more fascinated by the beauty of its vast complexities. Clearly, this place is not an accident. We are pieces of a puzzle, meant to form a picture of a larger whole. 

The challenge to those-who-move-around is to understand how those pieces fit together to tell a bigger story. Some would say it’s mass chaos; and there are days we hopelessly agree. We have seen the differences mount like a giant brick wall in the middle of Berlin. Yet we’ve also seen mothers who love their children both in war and in peace, people who serve the needy in red states and blue ones, and tears in children’s eyes both rich and poor. We have lived the intensity of Willa Cather’s words that “there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”

When the last box has been packed and the goodbyes have all been said, we know far-too-well that the clashing realities of cornfields and freeways shape home for many hearts; and we embrace that sweet tension within. For while home may very well be where our story begins, it is far from where it ends. With each new step into the unknown, we cherish the gifts of the old and lean toward the hope of the new, our hearts irreversibly expanded by each of these places we’ve called home.

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Culture & Race, Travel

Foreigner at a train station

train station

What happens when you shift from foreigner to friend without actually moving to a place? Such has become my reality in Sri Lanka, my husband’s homeland, as we have travelled there repeatedly over the past 15 years. I wrote this reflection for She Loves Magazine on my experience of returning year after year to the complex and beautiful country where my family and I love and are loved deeply. While it is not our home, it remains a precious piece of our life together.

swirl

I enter the train station trepidatiously. A foreigner-with-fancy-suitcases-and-tennis-shoes, I stand out against the locals in a sea of sandals, sarongs and saris. We board the train without incident and peer out the windows, eager to begin our journey. The train jolts and lurches forward; we travelers settle in.

We peer our heads out of the windows, breathing in a combination of warm-wind and train-smoke. The train clacks and bounces, while the intensity of both the beauty and the poverty rolling past our windows leaves me silently choked up.

Filth.

How do people manage to live like this? I wonder. But they don’t appear to be asking themselves any such questions.

“The people seem happier here,” my ten-year-old daughter observed. I have not spoken with them – I don’t know if this is really true or not – but from my train window, I notice the same thing: there is a contentedness to simply be that I do not often see in my wealthy-and-developed-world.

Shop owners chat. Children walk alongside mothers. Three-wheeler drivers await customers. There is no urgency to hurry or consume or buy.

Who am I amidst this place? I wonder. My external trappings carry no label except white-and-wealthy-foreigner. There can be no other put-on identity – funky, classy, intellectual, hip – except for this very obvious one.

It is undeniable that I do not belong here; but in spite of this, I cannot shrug the sense of strange belonging that comes with being a foreigner-wife. I am not merely a tourist in short-shorts trekking the ancient ruins and soaking in the breathtaking shores, but a family member, returning to the same people journey after journey, eager to see the small changes, check out the new developments and embrace the arms that have held my babies. We may not share language or culture or skin or fashion, but we share the same love for the same hearts. This bond holds us steady.

swirl

Click here to finish reading at She Loves Magazine.

Families, Children & Marriage, Travel

The value of traveling with young children

trainI watched my children peer out of the bouncing train’s window, absorbing the views and smells and sights of Sri Lanka. In a sense, it was not at all a ‘new’ place to them – we have traveled here to visit grandparents and aunties and uncles and cousins every few years since their infancy.  But in another sense, it is a brand new experience every time we come because with each trip, they know more, understand more, process more.

The sites from the train whizzed past us, poverty violently contradicting beauty, and I watched my children’s reactions to this just as carefully as I watched the scenery passing by.

DSC_2069 DSC_2050 DSC_2066 DSC_2081These were not views we saw regularly in our lives at home.  On the train, their strongest reaction was quietness (which is significant if you know my chatty son), and they didn’t say much about it at all until we came back to the States.

Two days after our return, my son climbed in the car after school and commented, “Mama, I think I’m just really into the world,” he declared matter-of-factly.

“What do you mean by that?” I’ve learned it’s best to always ask him for further clarification.  He has a bit of a history of mind-stretching conversations.

“Well, you know.  All the kids at school, they’re really into video games and stuff.  It’s all they talk about.  Me, I think about other things, like poverty and stuff.”

The views from the train entered my mind, and I waited for more.

“I mean, can’t someone do something about it, Mama?” he asked the very question I asked every single time I see injustice.  “Why do people have to live like that?  Can’t Barack Obama help them?”

I rejoiced for the awareness he showed and smiled at innocence.  Those train-views were sinking in, and he was starting to sort them out.

My intuitive daughter made a different kind of observation, “The people seem happier there, mama.”  Already she senses the emptiness of accumulation and busyness, noticing the up-side of living without.  My father-in-law used to say that it takes a long time to see the good in a place like Sri Lanka, but she sees it without delay.

Over the years, I’ve had my moments of wondering if we’ve been crazy to repeatedly take our children to a developing country plagued by war, dengue fever, and flying cockroaches.  When they were babies and toddlers, I was nearly convinced we were crazy.  Nine hour jet lag didn’t look too great on any of us except my energizer-bunny-of-a-husband in those years, and it would be a bit of an understatement to say we had some rough moments on those trips.  So why do we embrace the difficulty, the seeming risk of it all?  

One of the strongest lessons I learned when my husband and I were dating was to make decisions out of conviction and not fear. I’ve carried this concept with me into parenting, and it has helped clarify many decisions – especially the idea of traveling with our kids.  Though we don’t always live close by, we value our families deeply, and want our children to have the opportunity to know and learn from them.  This value of family connectedness held more conviction than my fear of bombs or dengue or flying cockroaches.  While the conviction didn’t erase the fears, it certainly put them in perspective.

In the earliest years of parenting, our decision to travel with our children was merely a hunch that it would be good for them in the long run.  “Start as you mean to go on” became our motto, for we wanted the world to be something that was as much a part of them as their hometown, and we knew that to do this, it should be something they had always known.

As they grow up, periodic responses like my son’s are confirming our hunch.  Trip after trip, I watch them connect with bits of themselves that they can’t find here in the US.  I rejoice quietly when I hear them use mulli and akka (the Sinhala words for little brother and big sister) for each other, when they call their father Thaathi with a Sri Lankan accent instead of an American one, when my daughter asks me to put her hair in a really low ponytail because “that’s how a lot of people wear it here”, or when they critique each other on proper finger-eating techniques.  While these are small and simple details, to me they speak loudly that our children are embracing all sides of themselves, proud to be shaped by both sides of the world.

They are by no means walking this path between worlds perfectly – their penchant for pizza and entertainment rivals most kids – but they’re doing it well, leaning in with whole hearts and open eyes.  It’s the sort of thing that brings a mama to her knees, grateful for the chance to walk alongside the unfolding of wonder and compassion.

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Miscellany

|of egrets and old souls|

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Every evening, they come.
One by one,
the egrets arrive at the river
preparing to roost for the night.
They dance from tree to tree,
congregating on the bridge for evening gossip,
and when dark falls,
they find just the right branch,
tuck their noses under a wing
and dot the trees with their fluffing puffs of cotton.
~
She loves to watch the egrets, my grandmother-in-law.
Every night, she perches her tenacious 91-year-old self
on the patio to watch them arrive
on the banks of the Mahaweli.
I sit with her one evening and watch them,
captivated both by the mystery of their patterns
and the joy she still finds in simple things.
We chat about how she watches them every day,
and sometimes even wakes up too-early in the morning
to watch them take off.
Silently I remember that
my own grandfather-a-half-a-world-away
loved these gracious birds too.
 ~
Perhaps
their many years
have given them an appreciation
for grace,
for gentleness,
for slowing down,
for noticing.
 ~
I capture a moment with my lens,
grateful for the wisdom
of the old souls
and the grace
of the egrets.

DSC_1956-001

Travel

Mental adjustments in crossing cultures

We’ll be heading around the world again soon, and I often think back to this moment of mental readjustment on a previous trip.  Surely there will be more, and I am ever grateful to these opportunities to reset my Western mind of abundance and consumption to a global reality.  

Four a.m. on an empty street in Sri Lanka. A man rides his bike. The shops wear their night dress of metal doors and barred windows. A few stray dogs catch a nap on the curb before the noise of the day begins. I am arriving in an air-conditioned taxi, complete with red velvet seats and Buddha figurine dangling from the rear view mirror.

We’ve just arrived from the States for a holiday with my husband’s family, and my cultural adaptation gears are shifting a bit too slowly. Somebody at the airport broke a piece off my fancy new stroller, and I, in my Western expect-efficiency-now-mindset foolishly tried to get a responsible looking employee to find it. He smiled at me, nodded his head agreeably, and walked away. I never saw him again.

Working out of my bad mood over the stroller incident, I stare out my window at the barefoot, lone man pedaling a bike. His feet are dusty, his shirt worn. Stick thin legs extend from the sarong wrapped around his waist. I wonder about his life. Does he have a family? How many children? Does his roof leak in the rain? How many people sleep in his bed? Does he have enough food to eat?

“What is he doing out so early?” I finally ask my mother-in-law. Inside, I really wonder what he thinks of me, the rich Suddha in the luxury taxi.

“Probably going to work.”

I feel ignorant and privileged. Where I’m coming from, no one commutes to the office barefoot on a bike. I can’t reconcile this, however, and feign understanding with a nod, “Oh.”

I wonder more. Is he Tamil? Sinhalese? How has the war affected him? Who is his God?

“Work?” I respond after a few moments. “Why so early?”

“He probably sells fish. Has to be at the market early.”

I gulp. The priority of the missing stroller piece plummets in importance. A man on an empty street riding a bike at four in the morning to sell fish – rancid, slippery fish – to eke out a living that might not even put food in his children’s mouths (if he has any). Yet he doesn’t seem to notice.

He also doesn’t even seem to notice me or the privilege of the nine suitcases piled high behind my seat. While the weight of abundance descends heavily upon my shoulders, he is simply riding his bike to work, at four in the morning, to sell fish at the market.

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Education, Travel

Bright smiles and marker caps

marker caps

I wrote this years ago reflecting on time I spent teaching English in Burkina Faso, West Africa, one of the poorest countries in the world.  Thanks to these children, hardly a week passes that I do not think of the realities of children living in poverty.

“Nasara! Nasara!” the children shouted as my moped puttered down their street. I may have been the first white person they had ever seen. “Goo morneen!” they waved. Some wore tattered clothes. Some wore none at all. None wore shoes. Bright smiles dominated their tiny faces.

I arrived at school where I was met by my students, “Goo morneen, Meess. How are you today?” they inquired, taking my books and bag.

“Fine, thanks,” I was overjoyed, actually. Having taught in American public schools, the Burkinabé students continually amazed me with their respect and kindness. Together, we crossed the dusty school yard toward the classroom, dodging an occasional pothole, curious child or stray pig.

One florescent light bulb provided light to the classroom. To turn it on, you had to precariously maneuver the wires until sparks flew and the bulb flickered on. Thankfully, my students were more adept at hot-wiring light bulbs than I. They had already swept the dust from the room and arranged the desks. Covered in a mix of sweat and red dust, I opened the metal slatted windows to let in a breeze. Four grinning faces stared back at me, eager to catch a glimpse of the nasara.

staring at the nasara

When it rained, my students didn’t go outside for fear of catching malaria from getting chilled, and because the flooded, broken roads were too difficult to navigate on moped. I found this out one rainy night when no one showed up at my class except for the Bright Smiles. I invited them in, offering some paper and markers from my bag. Their eyes glistened with excitement to see such bright, clean colors in a land where most brilliance had faded and/or been covered by thick red dust long ago.

For an hour, we spoke broken French and colored together under the dim glow of the lone light bulb. When they left, several of my marker caps mysteriously disappeared, even though I thought had clearly asked for them all back. I never did figure out why they took just the caps and not the markers. Maybe that inch of brilliance was still more color than they’d seen in their short lifetime.

The World Health Organization reports that 23% of these bright smiles will die before they reach age 5. If my marker caps add a bit of brightness to their lives, they can have every last one as far as I’m concerned.

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Families, Children & Marriage, Travel

Living far away

We rolled our bags down the entrance ramp with the other familes, backpacks heavy, batteries fully charged. Yet another trip back through the skies, the growing reality of our global lives. Friends come to us from an airplane this week, and more family the week after that. In a few short weeks, we will fly around the world to cover our fingers in curry and slap away pesky mosquitos and sweat ourselves silly with the cricket-playing-cousins.

The trips jam-pack themselves full of old joys and new discoveries. While there is no luxury of next-door life anymore, we are grateful for the squished-full-but-still-too-short days that the airplanes allow us together.

“What’s pot roast?” my daughter inquires of her meat-and-potatoes grandpa. He’s shocked she doesn’t know, but I affirm sheepishly that this childhood staple hasn’t ever made it into our family diet. I don’t even know how to buy a pot roast at the grocery store, let alone cook one, and food traditions at our house are more likely to include practicing proper techniques of finger-eating rice or chopstick-handling noodles.

I see words on a window at the airport, and am captured by their truth.

indy airport poem

This is how it feels, sometimes, life above the swirling earth. Always places we’re going to, places we’ve left behind spinning themselves around our lives between cornfields and curry, airplanes and freeways, water-buffalos-in-the-street and cows-in-the-barn. Always translating manners or looks or words for each other, occasionally missing something in the mix. Always navigating the risky waters of rural racism or third-world traffic patterns or airport security gates.

I sit on the airplane and think of my life between worlds, of the places I’m going and the ones I’ve come from. I think of how I can’t ever really go back to who I was and how I’m always becoming something new. I think of my students from the corners of the world and of my grandma from the corner of a cornfield. I think of the tractor induced traffic jams on back country roads and the breakneck speed and overflowing freeways of the city.

And I try to think them together – these worlds – for so many try to think them apart. I think of the grandma-from-the-West-African-bush with a giant smile and not a word of English making her way to the big city to see her first born grandchild. She smiled broad as she recounted how tall the buildings were. I think of a shivering young wife in a thin sweater slipping on ice for the first time in a bitter winter on her way to a new home. She shivers as she remembers, “It was sooo cold.” I think of a nervous young woman, in love across worlds, trying to impress her new family with her finger-eating skills only to fling half her plate of rice onto the ground.

Who are we becoming as we flit around the globe on these metal birds? I wonder.

It’s tempting to think I am the first to forge this path, but I am not. While some have tied themselves to the land, nomads have roamed for eons. They didn’t have airplanes or Skype, but the story tells itself the same.

Leave home.

Wander.

Make a new home in a strange land.

I think all the way back to Abraham, who did this very thing. Sometimes I wonder if he ever longed for the simplicity of just one home, if he struggled to make sense of the clash of the old and the new.  The Story says he did it by Faith, even though he didn’t know where he was going.  He probably made some mistakes in his new land – used the wrong words or touched the wrong thing or wore the wrong tunic. We don’t know about any of those details. What The Story determined we needed to see was Abraham’s faith to walk forward without knowing the destination.

Perhaps this is one little piece of thinking the world together: to trust that the beauty and strength and hope of the world far away runs just as deep and rich and true as the home that lingers in our memories. When we cross these caverns, our lives speak silently, echoing that we are better together than apart, that we must see more than just the broken ways of wounded people.

It used to bother me that all these worlds didn’t fit neatly in the box I thought they should.  Anymore, it usually just leaves me grinning for I’m growing to love the overflowing, shape-shifting nature of living on the bridge between bland pot roasts and spicy curries, flat cornfields and tiered rice paddies, slow tractors and speedy freeways.  While there is undeniable loss in living far away from all of our loved ones, it marches hand-in-hand with an unspeakable richness that comes from living between worlds.

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