Making the Holidays All Your Own

For those of us that celebrate Christmas, doing so abroad – away from friends and family – can be especially difficult. Christmas is a time where we crave the familiar, we resort to tradition and we strive to make the day as special as possible. We build it up. Often the day is just perfect. But, sometimes it’s not.

As I write this, I realize this is true for any special day – birthdays, anniversaries, and cultural and religious holidays. You don’t have to celebrate Christmas to recognize that any tradition you hold dear can be difficult to manage when you’re outside your home culture. You want, you need, everything to be just so…and yet, you know very well you won’t be able to have each and every last thing fit perfectly into your pre-reasoned plan.

So as an expat, trying to fit a bit of your own tradition into a place that you only temporarily call home, what can you do?

The Internet is full of great ideas. Not to get too sidetracked here, but I think it’s one of the great blessings of the modern age. Wanna’ know how to beat holiday stress? Google it! The answers are endless. In fact, here’s one I posted on the World Tree Coaching Facebook page just yesterday.

But, it’s up to each of us to look at what might work and try things out. We all know it’s a never-ending battle to force a tradition to be “perfect.” Things change and so do we; yet it’s common (and natural) to try to hold on to making these moments really count. So don’t be shy about figuring out new (and healthier) ways to handle the holidays (whichever ones you celebrate). If you’re feeling stuck – here are a couple of my favorite holiday survival techniques. I’m writing from the Christmas perspective below, but seriously – feel free to sub any special day (from Valentine’s Day to wedding anniversaries).

1) Harness the power of definition. You, not your parents, your friends back home (with their cozy knit hats, Starbuck’s, snow flurries and twinkly lights) or the media, can tell you what your holiday should be like. Sit down and decide to redefine your traditions so that they fit your mobile lifestyle. Passionately keep the things that work, but get rid of the things that stress you out, cause you un-needed mental clutter or make you feel guilty.

2) If you don’t have family with you – consider redefining your definition of family. This might seem pretty bold, but as an expat, I bet you do it already. Find the people you most love, the ones you most enjoy and the individuals who share your values. Make them a part of your family away from family. Unburden yourself from the label of mother, daughter, and sister and accept “friend” as being just as wonderful.

3) Give up on gifts for your spouse or partner. Gasp! I know – this sounds crazy, but I swear this is a good one. If you treat everyday as a potential day for a gift – “I saw this and thought of you,” “I knew you’d love this, I couldn’t resist,” “I hope you don’t mind, but I picked this up for you.” – you take off a lot of holiday pressure. You might even find that you enjoy moments with your spouse or partner more when you’re not stressed over finding the perfect thing or anxious over what’s hiding behind box number three. What you will surely realize is that when (or if) you do splurge on something special, it means so much more. Don’t go rogue on this one though – it requires careful planning and consideration with your significant other.

After years of trial and error, these are just a few that have worked for me. I’d love to hear your tricks for making the holidays fit your lifestyle (whether you’re an expat or firmly planted in your hometown). How do you make your special days special without leaving yourself drained, lonely, homesick or worse? Add your thoughts to the comments section – I’d love to build a nice long list!

And, for those of you celebrating – Happy Holidays!

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Building Your Foundation

They’re building some new apartments in my neighborhood. Watching these buildings go up freaks me out a bit. For one, most of the workers are barefoot, in shorts and t-shirts and without hardhats…or any protective gear for that matter. Then there’s the fact that the buildings appear to be just cinderblocks stacked, one on top of the other, up and up to what is now a height of about 10 meters.

This type of building process is not new to me. We were living in the Dominican Republic when the Haiti earthquake happened. We felt the tremors and then, as Embassy employees or volunteers, watched as evacuees filed out of chartered planes or buses still shaking from more than the unstable ground. From that moment on, I watched buildings go up around Santo Domingo – tall buildings of 10-20 stories – with only twig-based scaffolding upon which to balance the twig-sized men. Again, cinderblocks one on top of the other…up and up and up.

Buildings like this don’t last. Of course. I mean maybe they stick around a few years…or even a few decades – here in Madagascar we’re earthquake-free…although not flood-free, fire-free or pest-free.

This makes me think a lot about our mobile lifestyle. We collect experiences around us like cinderblocks. One on top of the other. A little deeper here. A little wider here. Just a thin façade at this point. Maybe a door or window here.

It’s easy I think, to imagine all of these experiences just collecting up, one after the other, to make a frame of a house that we call “my expat experience.” It works, right? Lots of people do it. I’ve been there! I’ve seen that!

But, really, that can’t be enough…can it? Like a house without proper foundation, supports, braces, corners and roof, if all we do is collect the experiences – we’re missing out. We benefit when we look at each one of these experiences and then mold it and shape it to make sense in our own reality. We can use reflection to create a solid foundation, stronger than a bunch of random blocks of experience. We can ask: What does it mean that I saw that? How do I feel about it? What was it like to arrive? What will it be like to go?

And when we ask these questions, we don’t just build a precarious, ill-fitting, mish-mash of a house – a life of random, unconnected and loosely interlocking parts, we actually build a home – a place inside ourselves where we say, “Here’s what I’ve learned. This feels right. I think I’d like to stay.”

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You Are Not Alone

I once admitted to my mom that I felt alone. We were between international moves, I was 6 months pregnant with my 3rd child, I’d left a job I loved knowing that, while I grew from it, it left me feeling drained, overwhelmed and wondering what I’d do next. I’ll never forget my mom’s response to my confession. She said, “You might feel lonely sometimes. We all do. It’s normal. But please remember, you are never, ever alone.”

I carry her words with me always. My mom is one of my very best friends. Those words gained their power not just from their truth, but also from the fact that she meant them. In fact, I know that, as a mother, she lives them. It’s her purpose to actually be them. We move a lot. It can leave me feeling a bit without an anchor. It would be easy to fall into the trap of alone-thinking. But, she’s right. I’m not alone….ever…even in the bathroom, because, hey, I have three kids under 10. The cool thing is, outside the bathroom I’m not alone either! The greatest blessing of our nomadic lifestyle is the absolutely amazing group of people I’ve come to call friends. I’m simply surrounded by really awesome people.

I look around my life and I realize that in literally every single corner of the globe I have a friend. You might borrow my car and I might bring you groceries when your kids are sick. I cry into my coffee and you into your glass of wine (or, of course, vice versa). We laugh. We dance. We sit around doing nothing. We have grand adventures in international bargaining. But, no matter what, we are not alone. We’re interconnected in the grand serendipitous flow of opening and closing windows here, there and everywhere.

There’s no other way to say it – it’s simply awesome. And, I’d like to believe that, when we remember this we are stronger. When we commit to embracing the things that bind us, we find levels of love and creativity and inspiration that we never recognized before. I believe we gain so much from this connection.

So, yes, sometimes we’re lonely or stuck or on the wrong path, but there’s no reason to do it alone! Tell a friend. Call a family member. Employ the buddy system. Write an email and lay it all on the line. Admit, to someone, that you’re treading water. Because, simply put, why be alone when it’s always better when we’re together…

 

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Negotiating the Yes Game

I used to say yes a lot. Flat-out, no-questions-asked, I-can-do-it, YES! Big surprise, this type of yes often left me resentful and annoyed at feeling compelled to do things I didn’t really enjoy. It also took away all the opportunities I may have had to do the really nice things that I do like to do. And, not just the things that I wanted to do for myself or my immediate family, but the things I wanted to do for other people in my life…even strangers. Saying yes in this way left me in the position of racing from one over-scheduled moment to another so there was no chance I’d stop and notice the things in life that really needed noticing. It also took away the fun of saying yes to the things I really, really wanted to say yes to – like coffee with a friend, a last-minute play-date for the kids or an early bedtime with a good book.

We hear a lot about the importance of learning to say no. Saying no is important, but the other side of saying no for most of us is looking at when, where and how we want to say yes. What I realized about myself is that I’m kind of a yes person…I just needed to get better at my yesses.

During university, I was part of a life-changing theater program. We often warmed-up with a game called “The Yes Game.” The game is about living in the moment. When one of your fellow performers makes a suggestion everyone chimes in “yes!” no matter how silly, exhilarating or strange. In that moment, you give in to fun, to experimentation, to something new. I like that game. It inspired me in my process of figuring out how to better say yes.

For me, the journey from unproductive, unhappy-yes to all-the-right-yesses has not been about flat-out-nos so much as better yesses. I like to get excited about things. I enjoy saying yes to something that inspires me, motivates me or brings me joy. So better understanding my yesses has been about examining my values and making my yesses really count. And, it’s been an experience of trial and error. Today’s energetic yes could become next week’s never-ever-again and, trust me, I’ll let you know. As much as possible, I give in to the outcomes of this trial and error. Sometimes I might feel over-scheduled, but with each yes failure I know a bit more about improving my yesses.

How do you sort your yesses from your nos? How do you know when you’re off track? What helps you get back where you want to be? Which yesses excite you and which ones make you groan?

Perhaps Shel Silverstein said it best:

The Yesees said yes to anything
That anyone suggested.
The Noees said no to everything
Unless it was proven and tested.
So the Yesees all died of much too much
And the Noees all died of fright,
But somehow I think the Thinkforyourselfees
All came out all right.

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What’s Your Mantra?

I posted a great video from Brené Brown on the World Tree Coaching Facebook page today. I find her bravery, wisdom and just plain human-ness incredibly compelling and insightful. There’s so much to learn from her research into what makes people tick, what motivates us, what makes us live fuller, braver and more completely and, in the end, what factors join us in a spirit of wholeheartedness.

In the video – which you can see here – she references the following quote from Theodore Roosevelt:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

The quote is commonly referred to as the Man in the Arena quote and it comes from a speech delivered by Roosevelt in 1910, in Paris. I can’t imagine a soul not being moved by the powerful and heartfelt strength of these words. How true they are.

But, in my quick (and admittedly rather limited) research into this quote I stumbled upon something perhaps doubly powerful – the comments section of the websites where the quote is presented. The beauty of these words has and does serve as a mantra for many. Many commentators speak of failure and rebound, loss and discovery, heartbreak and new love fortified. Many simply said, “Words to live by.”

From Shakespeare to Steinbeck, Mandela to Mo Willems (not kidding here – few things can inspire my inner child like Elephant and Piggie) words can very much be what we live by.

So, what words inspire you? What’s your mantra? What messages do you carry with you, in your heart and your head, that move you on through thick and thin, around the bend and back again? Here’s a gentle reminder to keep them close – on your desktop, your fridge, even scribbled on the back of your hand on a particularly rough day (although I’m guessing Roosevelt’s a little lengthy for this one). When your heart feels heavy, cuddle up to these words that give back, hold them close and keep right along your windy, pebbly, occasionally bumbling path. One. Foot. In. Front. Of. The. Other.

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Learning from the Everyday

This weekend my family and I took a nice trip out of town. It wasn’t anything overly spectacular – just an enjoyable and relaxing time outside the city. There were opportunities for hiking, exploring and seeing local wildlife. We did a bit of that – there’s really no missing the wildlife, as this spot happens to be one of the most popular tourist destinations for getting up close and personal with lemurs. But, most of the time we watched the kids run up and down a hill, throw rocks in a stream and sword fight with sticks of bamboo.

While my husband and I were really interested in taking in some nice long walks, the kids just weren’t enthusiastic about it. What they were enthusiastic about was that hill, those rocks, that stream and the endless possibilities drawn from a stick of bamboo. In the end, it was more enjoyable to sit and watch them explore the world around them on their own terms, than to try to force them into our prepared plan. The value of just being together outweighed the need to do something “special” together. And, anyway, what we did end up doing was absolutely special enough.

We’re not the first or only family to have had a similar experience. That is, after all, what families do all the time – they adjust, they re-evaluate, they listen to each other’s needs and wants, they change and they grow.

What I wonder is, how often do we let these everyday experiences (these moments of potential growth and change) go by without really taking the time to notice them? Do we give them the weight that they deserve? If we took more time to ask ourselves what we learn from a given adventure, would we be poised to learn even more? And I’m not just talking about the big stuff – the times when you think “Whoa! We’ll never do that again!” I’m talking about the small stuff too. The little adjustments, the tiny shifts in plan. If we paid better attention, could we save ourselves from undue hassle, heartache, frustration or anger?

My thought is – probably. It can’t hurt. It’s at least worth a try.

So, next time you find yourself reflecting on a particularly awesome day or an especially crummy one, consider taking time to slow down and be curious about what’s working or not working.  What made this day different from any other? Are any aspects of this day worth repeating? Did your actions or the actions of someone else add joy to the day? Are small adjustments in attitude, outlook, or point-of-view all it takes to make a bad day better? Or, is there something bigger at work? The possible questions are endless. You decide which ones work for you. Whatever you do, give yourself the gift of noticing the everyday. You never know what you’ll find by looking more closely at the things that typically pass you by.

 

 

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The Constant of Memory

Today is one of those days.

No, not one of those days that leave you feeling overwhelmed, drained, lost or homesick. Today is one of those days that I find to be my favorite type of expat-life days – when all the places I’ve lived (including and especially “home”) can be felt in the air of the place that I am.

It’s spring here in Tana. It’s the rainy season. This means that everyday, at some point, it rains. And this is rarely some brief drizzle. It can be hours and hours of rolling thunder, steady downpour, and off and on again breezes that completely wipeout the humidity. And, it’s a really quiet day. My daughter is going on the second hour of her nap. Our housekeeper is out sick. I hear the neighbor’s gardener mowing with one of those hand-push, squeaky-wheel mowers (the kind that only the most environmentally sensitive Americans use, but that are considered quite a luxury…over the everyday machete…where I live). We have great birds here; they’re chirping away with their super unique Madagascar songs.

All these things together – the sounds, the dampness in the air, the dim light of the house even with the curtains open – make this like a day I’ve experienced before. A day that’s happened here…and there…and there. Those days in my old office in Austin where a bit of rain kept bus-riding clients at home and meant a colleague and I could steal a moment to catch up on a cup of tea and a chat. Or, those times as a child when I’d wrap up in this old blanket from my Mimi’s house and read The Three Musketeers. Or, when we lived in Japan and I’d get home early from teaching young boys sections of Casey at the Bat, the rain would start and I’d doze off for a brief nap. And don’t even get me started on how this reminds me of the rainy season in the Dominican Republic. It may be halfway across the world, but I can practically smell the rice and beans cooking through the drizzle.

Even the most adventurous of expats crave a sense of belonging. I believe these moments – the stream of past events that bind us through each stop in our journey – have the power to make us homesick. That’s okay, of course. But, they also have the power to help us realize that we can carry home with us. We are a part of something constant through the power of our own memory and the people with whom we share those times, even if we move around a lot. It takes stopping to notice. And really, not just noticing, but feeling the noticing, filing it away, making it part of our collective records of the home we hold inside us. That’s a good thing. Because we’re not home-less, we’re home-full. We’re a long, long list of places that we collect together into a new land called “us.”

 

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Your Life Story

This is a nice article on the power of personal narrative. It gets me thinking about how life coaches help clients access their stories.

Life coaching is very forward focused, but that doesn’t mean that life coaches don’t acknowledge or think about the past – or that they encourage their clients to forget the past. In fact, the past (and what we tell ourselves about our history) is essential to looking forward. From birth through old age, we’re constantly assimilating past experiences to help us better understand what’s next.

I ask my clients to complete a “My Life Story” exercise. While this helps me get to know the people I’m working with better, I also believe it’s important for creating the next steps in a path towards reaching one’s dreams. It can help you develop closure, recognize that it’s time to move on, remind you of the dreams you left behind or enable you to take the first steps towards change.

Are you finding your visions for the future a bit nebulous? If so, try writing down your life story. You don’t have to be the next Shakespeare. It’s not even essential that anyone else ever see it. And I’m not talking autobiography, just a page or two of the highlights. But, it should be your voice, your take on the way things have been.

Then read what you’ve written. What feelings come up about the past? What language do you use to describe your life? Do the changes you might want to make get clearer? Do things look completely different on paper? Do you see patterns that you want to repeat in order to reach your dreams? Or, do you see habits you might want to get rid of?

It could be you see your needs, your wants or your values where before you simply saw a series of events. Maybe you see your blessings. Perhaps your strengths become more apparent. Or, it could be simply a nice reminder of where you’ve come from. And it might be there’s no better place to start when you’re thinking about where you want to go.

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The Things We Put Up With….

I’m not going to go into the details of why, in our expat life, we find ourselves ordering shoes online for our kids, but suffice it to say – we do. There are myriad complicating factors to international shoe purchasing (especially if you live in a place where the general population finds shoe-wearing highly optional). The cost, the quality, the sizing, the styles…the possibilities for shoe misfortune are endless. In the end, you guess your kid’s shoe size, cross your fingers and click “order.”

Over the last several years, as a result of my own experience with this, I have found myself with at least 3 pairs of shoes per child that didn’t quite fit. Too long, too narrow, too short, too green (to which I admittedly say, “But you wanted green shoes!”), too wide or just plain “uncomfortable.”

When I think about the shoes, I think about all of the inconveniences that we must deal with as a simple fact of living life outside our home cultures. But, I also think about all the inconveniences that we accept simply by being blinded by our own habits. There’s a balance to be sought here I think. Those expats who chose to accept a certain level of inconvenience undoubtedly fare better. There’s very much something to be said for going with the flow and making adjustments to your own sense of normal in order to merge successfully into your new lifestyle. If you’re constantly fighting, the only thing you’re really defeating is yourself.

At the same time, isn’t it possible that over-flexibility or extreme-acceptance causes us on occasion to put up with things that actually have real, obtainable and viable solutions? The challenge, of course, is being able to recognize the difference.

It can’t hurt to regularly take stock of the things you’re “putting up with.” If you find yourself repeatedly struggling with the same issues, write them down and then ask yourself (or a friend) if maybe there’s a solution you hadn’t considered before. Then, list concrete steps to try out the solutions. And remember, when it’s all said and done, give yourself the reward of letting go of frustration over the things that really can’t be changed. Pat yourself on the back for simply taking a new approach, regardless of the outcome.

And, as for the shoes, the solution was simple (and very much thanks to the suggestion of a friend and mother of four) – purchase a Brannock Device. Life (and pocketbook) changing.

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