Expat Life: Living In the Middle

Woman in green shirt and messy ponytail looking out over canyon.
Photo by Jack Finnigan on Unsplash

We’re moving soon. Right now I’m in a canyon of in-between.

Desert wildflowers and brambly bushes compete for space with rattlesnakes and scorpions along the banks of a bubbling stream from which hawks swoop down to quench their thirst. In short – despite the outward appearances of beauty, it often feels like one false step could lead to disaster.

On the other hand, I’ve been here so many times before I’ve become quite used to it. The reality of our time in Japan winding down (approximately 102 days from today) seems both unreal and entirely what should be happening right now. I imagine a bit like coming upon a rattlesnake den in a canyon. You’re shocked…but then, you are in a canyon.

Over the course of our expat life I’ve come to realize that trying to define these events as having distinct beginnings, middles and ends is fruitless. Right now, for example, when we have neither moved from Tokyo nor arrived in Brussels, feels like beginning, middle and end; a little bit of all three mixed up in a strange, confusing mishmash of this moment.

Yet, even if it’s confusing, there is indeed a real feeling to this in-between place. If we can never really define something as beginning, middle or end, what is it then that makes this part of the expat journey so distinct from other phases?

Is it knowing that at some point in June we will lift off from Haneda and in those very seconds we will have left Japan, but won’t have arrived somewhere else? Will it be those 8 weeks or so this summer when we go home to Austin without an actual home to return to?

Expats talk about this all the time – the in-between phase. Honestly, it doesn’t actually need a definition or clear lines to be real. It exists. We feel it.

You know how it goes…

It’s that time when you start to pull back from the life you’re leading in one place and begin to allot designated moments to begin to deal with the preparations of the next location.

You begin to calculate which dinners, coffees and social events are worth your time. You start to actively consider whether or not this particular friendship is worth it. You start to make your bucket list for shopping and travel. You begin to come to terms with the places you’ll simply not have the opportunity to visit (Hokkaido – waaaahhhh!).

It’s a mental unbuttoning of one layer of clothing while simultaneously pulling on another. As you can imagine, it can feel clumsy and even reckless at times. For those of us who’ve done it often, it also feels comfortingly familiar.

Either way, like the ecosystem of a dessert canyon, it remains both completely explainable and surprisingly complicated.

I think in the grand scheme of things, what’s more important than trying to pinpoint the exact nature of this experience, whether in your eyes it’s the beginning, middle or end of something – is remembering to develop a comfort with the stillness, ambiguity and the in-between-ness of it all – the in-between-ness of the entire expat experience. To learn to walk neither fearfully cautious nor optimistically blind through the canyon, but to cultivate a deeper awareness of all that comes up as we navigate the unpredictable terrain at any phase.

The only real question then, is how.

I think we do it by owning that we’re in-between people. We’re neither at the very moment of our birth nor (in most cases) the edge of the end of our life’s journey. We’re always in the middle. We like to believe that the next exciting adventure is just about to begin, but I’m not sure it works that way. One moment is always beginning and just like that it’s also ending. And over and over and over.

We learn to become comfortable in this liminal space by seeing what’s really here in this very moment – our real emotions as they are, our thoughts as they jump us forward or pull us back into the next phase. We accept both the simple truths and the distracting clutter of the moments we live right now as the real place. We become trusting of our ability to be insightful and open to learning from the unexpected. We take up residence in the awareness of right now. We admit it might all be the middle…of something.

When we see it that way, it’s a whole lot less scary.

One of my very favorite quotes is from Sue Monk Kidd in one of my very favorite books When the Heart Waits. It reads, “What makes you think life happens on tomorrows stage? This is no rehearsal. This is it. Live it now!”

In all the many places we may live, the canyon is always there in both its beauty and ruggedness. We live here. And, you know us world travelers, we can make anywhere home.

My Latest Article on I Am a Triangle: How to Wake Up in 2019 – 13 Mindfulness Practices for Expats in the New Year

Expat woman with eyes closed and face to sun.

Is mindfulness more accessible than you think? Could it make all the difference in your expat life?

Expat life is full of ups and downs, but we don’t have to weather uncertainty, setback and transition with blinders on. The New Year is the perfect time to wake up, tune in and start fresh with accessible, everyday mindfulness practices you can access wherever you go. 

I’m so happy to share these 13 expat-friendly mindfulness practices in my latest piece for I Am a Triangle. Mindfulness is more doable than you think and these practices are the perfect start to your 2019!

Seeing Through Red Brick Walls – How I Found My Vision at the End of the World

When we moved to Madagascar several years ago, I had three small children. The youngest was just a few months old. My husband worked long hours and I used to dread the moment when our helper left at the end of the day and it was just me there with the kids in a strange place where I didn’t speak the local language or yet understand the culture.

It wasn’t that being without our helper was scary. It’s not like we’d always had a helper. I think it was the feeling that, once she left, the connection I had to the world beyond my own small compound faded away. It was isolating, even if it only lasted a couple hours until my husband would bang three quick, clumsy thumps on the outside gate while balancing, suit and all, on his bike.

In the hours before he got home, I’d often insist, despite the determined swarms of mosquitos descending in the dusk, that we all go out to the front yard. The boys would play in the red, unrelenting dirt and I’d nurse my daughter from a chair on the front porch, holding on for dear life, staring at the jacaranda peering over the brick wall of our compound.

The brick wall.

If you’ve ever lived in Madagascar, you know that for the rest of your life, when you mention it as a place you once lived, people will say, “Woah! Madagascar! How was that!?” I always struggle to answer at first. While we grew to create our very best friendships there and to love our little life on the Red Island, my early memories are inseparable from the fact that we moved there with a newborn and two small kids, that I’d just left a job that I loved, but that spent me emotionally and I felt utterly without focus or vision.

Everything was red brick walls.

But sometimes, we have to get to this place where we feel stuck behind the wall in order to better understand our way through to the other side, to find the hidden doorways. That’s what happened to me.

It was during those early days in Madagascar, when my days were a mix of dreaming and surviving, that I began to see the importance of turning each day towards a vision of who I wanted to be in the world. I didn’t think I’d felt lost before, but in retrospect, I realize that what I thought was vision, was really more like ego combined with a fine dose of optimism and a fair bit of adventure. With small children and a meandering career, I realized those things were no longer enough.

It was there, that I began to see the significance of not only asking what my vision for my life was, but revisiting it often, with commitment and focus. Most of us probably have some sense of the person we’d like to be, yet we consider this as an after-thought – something to take up only during times of struggle or loss, great opportunity or fortune…and maybe not even then.

But learning to see each day as an opportunity to move closer to our vision of who we want to be in the world is something we can engage in at any time. It might even be simpler than you think.

The short exercise below is a modified version of one I do in vision crafting sessions with my clients. While I’ll confess there’s added benefit of taking up these questions with a coach, someone who can ask more questions and help you stay focused on the exercise, there’s really no reason you can’t do this on your own.

Do this…

First, think back to a time when you felt completely on your game. This can be a small moment – like a bath-time parenting win or something bigger like overcoming a professional or financial setback. When you think of that time, what qualities were you most exhibiting? Write down as many as you can think of.

Then, think about the people you know and love – what do you admire in them? Are those qualities you’d like to bring into your own life? Write those down too.

Next, look at all the words you’ve put on the list. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Then, open your eyes and circle the 3 words that most draw your attention. These words are a starting point for defining your vision of who you want to be in the world. This may take some time. You might even choose 3 to try out for a few weeks and then choose another 3 later. That’s okay.

Finally, to see how your vision works for you in real life, try one (or all) these practices:

During a moment of intense emotion, pause, take a deep breath and ask – Who do I want to be right now? Say your 3 words in your head. Use them as your guide.

After you have a stressful experience, a big change, a challenge or miscommunication, think back over the event. Ask yourself – How did my actions align with my vision of who I want to be in the world? If your actions aligned well, spend some time thinking about how you were able to act in accordance to your vision. If your actions weren’t aligned ask – How can I strengthen that alignment?

Write your 3 words from your vision on a notecard. Place the notecard somewhere you’ll see every day. Notice if this helps you become more aware of your vision in your daily life. Alternatively, consider keeping the notecard in a place where you feel you have the most difficulty staying aligned with you vision.

It’s important to remember in doing these exercises that our vision is not so much a destination or a list of wants or dreams. The most useful and adaptable vision is a vision that reminds us of who we want to BE not what we want to DO. Our vision of who we want to be guides what we want to do. It brings us back again and again to the deeper role we play in the story that unfolds before us. It’s a light shining on, and ultimately through, the brick walls.

Five Ways Mindfulness Helps Me Find Home

It’s no secret that I’ve found a daily mindfulness practice to be a key ingredient in my ability to manage the ups and downs of our international life.

Despite common misunderstandings about mindfulness practice, it’s really not all that complicated. Mindfulness is quite simply the practice of paying attention and seeing clearly what’s happening while it’s happening.

Perhaps it’s not surprising then that, in the unpredictability of expat life where pretty much everything can feel strange and unfamiliar, becoming more mindful can help us navigate our experiences with increased ease and resilience.

Here are just a few of the ways that’s played out for me.

Mindfulness allows me to practice feeling homesick…and also not homesick.

I make a point of reminding the people in both my personal and professional life that there are no “good” and “bad” emotions. Emotions are neither positive nor negative. Sure – some feel better than others, but ultimately, everything we feel comes from somewhere and serves a purpose in helping us navigate our experiences.

Mindfulness practice enables us to pay attention to what we’re feeling without trying to:

  • change it (what we often try to do when we’re feeling emotions we don’t like),
  • chase it (what we like to do when an emotion feels good) or
  • judge it (what we do when we feel our emotions don’t align with how we’re “supposed” to feel).

When it comes to living life around the world, practicing mindfulness by developing a more reflective and compassionate relationship with our emotions can support us in learning how to deal with whatever comes our way.

Mindfulness helps me see home as a state of being created in my own mind.

Another key element of mindfulness practice, is learning to see things as they really are, not simply as we want them to be. Mindfulness inspires us to ask questions about what we’re witnessing and examine what we find there. While this isn’t always easy, being able to tune in to life as it truly is is a huge benefit of mindfulness practice.

What does this mean practically speaking?

Imagine I’m telling myself, “I hate it here! I’m never going to fit in. There are no work opportunities. This is a disaster!” Mindfulness doesn’t eliminate our ability to feel lost or overwhelmed, but it does enable us to stop and examine our perceptions. I can then start to ask questions like:

  • How much of this is really true and how much of this is a story I’m telling myself?
  • Is there anything that is working right now?
  • What can I learn here?
  • Are there things that I don’t hate?
  • What previously unnoticed options do I have in this situation?

Now, that doesn’t mean you suddenly start loving a place that just isn’t working for you, but it does help you get more creative, offering you the opportunity to make decisions based on a clearer, more thoughtful way of seeing.

Mindfulness reminds me to notice the details.

One of my most treasured benefits of maintaining a daily mindfulness practice is the way in which it has deepened my ability to pay attention to the “small” things.

When we move from place to place, it’s so easy to think that we should be unfazed. It becomes common, I think, to feel that we’re able to adapt at a moments notice and that our unbelievable flexibility means we can make these shifts with little or no disruption to our body or our mental state.

When we develop basic, everyday mindfulness skills, we engage the practice of slowing down and seeing the little bumps in the road. Sometimes small disruptions – the noise outside your new apartment that causes you to sleep poorly, the times you spend hungry because you’ve yet to stock your pantry, the frustration of slow internet connection that means your calls to your best friend are mess of static, feedback and silence – can actually have a huge impact.

When we take a moment to be still and really pay attention, we may notice the physical sensations, the emotions, or the discomfort of uncertainty that live in that space. We learn from seeing those places of unease and becoming mindful of them enables us to make much-needed adjustments.

Mindfulness encourages me to practice ritual.

Before we started our international life, I wasn’t really someone who stuck to a routine. Sure, I attempted to create positive habits (going for a run, reading before bed, etc.), but I never felt much pressure to really keep up with them.

Moving from place to place has made my healthy habits all the more important and my mindfulness practice supports me in staying awake to their significance in my life.

Mindfulness and mindfulness meditation inspire me to establish rituals and routines because the habits themselves (whether seated meditation or simply performing tasks with attention and care) foster dedication. In other words – by committing myself to being more mindful in my choices, actions, observations and interactions, I’m laying the foundation for commitment to other positive health habits as well.

Morning meditation, a daily jog, cooking healthy meals, taking frequent work breaks throughout the day and reading before bed are habits that I rely on during transition to create a sense of inner balance during upheaval. Additionally, when I notice these habits slipping, it’s my commitment to everyday mindfulness practice that helps me return to these supportive rituals.

Mindfulness supports me in building relationships.

A great deal of mindfulness practice is about developing an awareness of our inner dialogue – our thoughts, emotions, and judgments. However, it’s important in mindfulness practice to recognize the way in which our relationship with ourselves (and this internal dialogue) relates to how we connect with others.

Mindfulness helps me to take time with people. It supports me in active listening so that I can better understand how the moving experience affects my husband and children. It enables me to slow down and see better the ways in which those around me may be suffering or the ways in which they’re brought to life by something new in our world.

Moving is almost always a time of great stress. It’s a time when our tempers are short and we’re more likely to lash out at those around us. Mindfulness doesn’t always prevent that from happening (we’re all human after all!), but it can give us the skills to turn back to generosity and kindness when we realize we’ve behaved poorly towards others.

And, mindfulness helps us make friends. Research says that our ability to understand our own emotional experiences makes us better at understanding the experiences of others. That, in turn, makes us better friends – and that goes for the friends we’ve left behind and those we’ll make in our new home.

What about you?

Do you have an informal mindfulness, meditation, or spiritual practice or other ritual that supports you in practical ways as you move? If not, what would it take for you to start something like this?

Share with me in the comments what’s worked for you or what’s sparked your interest in reading this post. Click here to learn more about how I can help you bring these skills into your own life.

Everything’s a Shade of Gray: The Perfection of Imperfection in Expat Life

I remember when we were heading to our first overseas assignment as a family. It was 2009, my husband and I had both lived abroad before, but this was our first time exposing our children (ages 3 and 1 at the time) to the world outside the United States.

I was so incredibly excited to be moving to the Dominican Republic. I’d done a school report on the DR for my high school Spanish class and had been friends with a Dominican exchange student at our school.

It felt like a dream come true. It was our first choice of assignments, I speak Spanish and had high hopes of finding meaningful work and all of our family members are beach-lovers so I knew we would happily bask in the surf and sand.

I felt like it was one of those places that called me, that I was destined to go. It was all meant to be.

And then I remember riding from the airport to our new home. “This is it?” I thought. Old Nissan pick-up trucks held together with duct tape, piled ten feet high with mattresses rumbled past unscathed, perfectly spotless Lamborghinis. Donkey carts full of piña competed for space against motos carrying five or more members of a family, oftentimes the baby dangling happily to the side. Black spilling exhaust, the thumping of merengue behind blasting car horns and screeching tires, potholes and stray dogs and precarious power lines, open sewers all under a blanket of sun and humidity that burned my face and saturated my nose.

Nothing was as I had expected.

And in it’s shocking imperfection, it was perfect. Somehow it already felt like home. Like “a” home.

As with anything – this awareness is not a uniquely expat experience. It’s not something that only those of us living between cultures can see. But, because we live between places we’re made deeply aware of the shades of gray that makeup the world.

It’s the reason that a place with human rights violations can also be a place where we fall in love.

It’s the reason that walking among soaring skyscrapers and pulling up a chair to endless dishes of perfectly crafted foods, doesn’t remove from our brains the knowledge that women are being made to shut up and pour tea in the hallways of those same buildings.

It’s why witnessing staggering poverty breaks our hearts and leaves us feeling helpless, but also enables us to see laughter and happiness on the faces of people who’s lives we know could be much better. And then we ask, “Well, who’s really to say what’s better?”

Of course, it’s also the reason we never fully go back to our passport countries. Because now we see them in all of their never-ending gray. And then we start to see ourselves as part of that. Perhaps we’re gray too. Nothing’s all good. Nothing’s all bad. It simply gets complicated.

The truth is – the only real sign of perfection, is imperfection. Imperfection is the norm (whether we like it or not). Imperfection is what’s real – in the places we love and the people we are.

So why does this sit so deep in the awareness of those of us who move?

Because that dichotomy – of seeing all the imperfections in the places that bring us so much joy and of finding the perfection in the places we never expected to love – gets us closer to the truth about the world.

Living with the truth is so much more fulfilling. It’s what makes a life lived around the world so compelling. We can love somewhere and see its pain. We can recognize how drawn we feel to freedom and mobility, while also acknowledging the deep loneliness that comes from being so far away.

We stop seeing in black and white. We live right smack in the middle. We live both places. We are both places. Maybe it’s not even really gray in there. Perhaps it’s where all the color really lies.

We can never un-seen that…ever.

No wonder we can’t go “home.”

Capturing Emotions

A parent in a Foreign Service Facebook group recently shared this video that her daughter made about being a Third Culture Kid. It’s so well done and does a wonderful job of capturing the emotions of this lifestyle. I even teared up a bit watching it with my oldest son.

Being able to name and identify our emotions is key to successfully navigating the expatriate lifestyle. If you’re interested in learning how to better understand your own thought and emotional patterns, consider checking out this free downloadable exercise from my book – The Expat Activity Book: 20 Personal Development Exercises for Gaining Insight and Maximizing Your Potential Wherever You Are. Or, click here to find out more about the book and purchase your copy.

Coaching Opportunities in 2018

In the past two days I’ve had the incredible pleasure to conduct “get-to-know-you” sessions with the participants in the beta-test of my Finding Your Way: Everyday Mindfulness for Critical Moments program. This 12-week mindfulness skills program will support clients in learning the practical, accessible mindfulness skills offered through the Personal Leadership framework and provide coaching support as the participants implement these skills into their daily lives.

It has been so fun to engage in these conversations! Each of the participants is coming to the program from their own unique desire to live more engaged and more connected with the world around them. I have loved sharing with them the details of how we’re going to be talking about real world skills, actual day-to-day practices and ideas that they’ll be able to implement not just in times of balance, but in times of upheaval.

Please stay-tuned for updates (by liking the World Tree Coaching Facebook page or by joining my email mailing list if you haven’t already). I’m hoping to have completed the beta phase and to begin accepting clients for the program in late-April 2018.

I’m also happy to announce that I’m now booking individual coaching clients for 2018. After some time off for the holidays (and to get my beta-testers moving through their program), I’ll begin seeing new individual coaching clients in mid-January.

If you’ve thought about coaching before, but aren’t sure it’s the right fit for you, please click here and schedule a time for us to talk more. This no-obligation session is a great way to see how coaching could support you in reaching your goals, managing transition, gaining clarity and maintaining (or regaining) balance as you enter a new year. Coaching is a true gift to yourself. There’s nothing quite like it!

As a special offer, all new clients who register between now and December 18, 2017, will receive a free copy of my book The Expat Activity Book: 20 Personal Development Exercises for Gaining Insight and Maximizing Your Potential Wherever You Are (a $20 value) along with a voucher for $25 off the coaching program of her or his choice.

Click here to learn more about how we can work together to make 2018 the year you get moving where you want to go!

Happy Fourth Birthday World Tree Coaching!

I was looking back at some past World Tree Coaching birthday posts and it turns out I write pretty much the same things every year! Seriously. Year one. Year two. Year three.

It’s clearly a birthday blogging tradition and all of it’s still true, so why change now?

Here’s what I’m saying (again):

Yay! I made it!

I love this work!

I love my clients!

This year I’m doing super fun new things (read about some of them here and here and here).

Gush, gush, gush, gush, gush – this job makes me so happy and I’m gonna’ do it forever!

Work With Me! Working with a life coach is awesome! Don’t take my word for it though – check out what my clients are saying. Or read this recent post from another coach friend and learn a bit more about why working with a coach is absolutely something you should do.

I’ve got a couple of clients wrapping up and that leaves 4 individual coaching spots open between now and the New Year. Wait! World Tree Coaching is turning 4 and I’ve got 4 spots open!? What are the chances!?

Seriously – what are you waiting for?

Wondering what exactly I do? Here’s an excerpt from this recent blog post:

As a coach and expat support professional, I help people find home. I whole-heartedly believe that the answer to what home means to each of us is already with us. With age and time and conditioning, we lose our ability to get up close and personal with what we think and feel and that affects our ability to see clearly what home really means. We shy away from the messy parts, we hide the ups and downs and we downplay the things we’re totally rocking. My theory is – it’s all material! I help people learn to be okay with what’s working well. And, I support people as they honestly and gently, refocus towards their inner sense of home when they find what they’re currently doing has stopped serving them well.

How do I do all of that?

I bring optimism and compassion into the space in which we are working together. I believe in my clients – they are whole, capable, experienced and brilliant. Through a lens of love and curiosity, I invite them to step into the space where they can use those traits to get where they want to be.

That pretty much sums it up. Join me and help me celebrate yet another year of supporting people in finding home no matter where they are.

Read more about my one-on-one coaching programs here.

Click here to schedule a FREE, no obligation consult session to see what this coaching thing is all about.

Back to School and Back to YOU!

Let’s face it – you love your kids, but you might…just might…be happy they’re all back at school. Right now it’s possible you look like the lady in that photo…right?

If there’s one thing I hear from friends, clients and colleagues alike right now it’s that a return to the school year means a return to regular schedules, normal bedtimes and a better sense that you can come out from under everyone else’s stuff. It’s heavy under there!

And that means it’s the perfect time for you to turn the focus back in your direction for a bit.

I want you to do that! I love more than anything supporting people in reaching their goals, finding their sense of self and moving forward one step at a time in connecting with what matters most in their lives.

Join me in celebrating this newest transition by taking advantage of my latest coaching program offer.

From now until the end of September 2017, take 20% off your coaching program fees. Click here to see if you’re eligible for additional discounts. Installment plans are available for my 8- and 12-week programs.

If you’re ready to get started – simply email me at jodi at worldtreecoaching dot com.

Have you been thinking about coaching, but you’re still not sure if it’s right for you? Never considered coaching, but now you’re kinda’ curious?

Read what past clients have said here. Or click here to schedule a time to chat with a FREE, 45-minute consult session!

Peaches (Home Poems)

The other day my mom sent me a photo of a basket of peaches.

I want to be that basket of peaches.

I want to be the prickly, sweet way that they smell. I want to be the juice that seeps through the corners of the dry, crinkle sound of the paper bag that first housed them on the side of a two-lane road somewhere between Fredericksburg and Austin. Bluebonnets long since faded and replaced by green that won’t be brown until August…on a good year.

I want to climb inside the basket and feel how they’re both scratchy and soft at the same time. Like the little pig I once named Wilber…before I really understood what happens to Wilber.

I want to walk into HEB and pass right by the Georgia peaches that sit there in that big, wooden, less-expensive crate with the bright yellow sign that says, “Buy me because I’m cheaper!” and go straight for the smaller ones in the less visible display next to the limes and lemons.

Sure they’re smaller. Bring it on! Don’t Mess With Texas.

When you pick them up in your palm you already know they’re just right without even giving them a gentle squeeze. There’s always a stack of lunch sacks waiting just right on top or maybe sometimes in that little wooden holder.

Do they bring that holder out just for peach season?

Who would put peaches in a plastic bag?

Who would call tortillas, soft tacos?

Who drives by Dairy Queen without stopping for a Blizzard (small, extra Heath)?

But back to the peaches.

I want to hold the fruit in my hand and gently turn the knife around and around along the middle, making a meridian. Lots of meridians to cross between here and home. Lots of lines. This one in the peaches is perfect.

I want to be that moment, after the knife, when if it’s just the right peach, on just the right day (which is always June), at just the right time (which is always 3:00 in the afternoon) when you hold each side and twist. Snap. Not quite a snap though. More like a deep, just-waiting-to-give release.

And now it’s two sides. Eat one. Slice the other. Peel or no. That part’s up to the consumer.

I want to be those peaches because in them there are so many memories. It’s like if I become them, crawl inside and live from them all the things that seemed so simple are still there.

Time stands still in those peaches.