Major Milestone

Today I watched my 6 year-old walk across the stage at his Kindergarten graduation. He’s the same kid who almost died four months ago. The same kid who played one day with his friends and then left almost everything he loves, with no prior warning, to get on a small plane to a hospital in a country he’d never been to. The same kid who gets four shots a day and anywhere between six and twelve (or even sometimes more) finger sticks over the course of each and every 24 hours.

And, he’s the same kid that is a natural with anything that requires running or jumping or sliding or involves a ball. He’s the kid who can now read, add single digit numbers with no fingers (usually) and tell you what items on your plate contain carbohydrates. He’s the kid with the killer blue eyes, the mischievous, pure-love smile, and the blonder than blond, still baby-fine hair. He’s the one who’s grown over an inch since January. He wears either (and only) soccer cleats or cowboy boots…always. He’s the one who loves hugs and babies and super heroes.

He’s nothing short of incredible – when the going’s easy and when the going’s just plain tough.

Not to exaggerate here, but really, aren’t we all? I don’t know about you, but I look at my children, my husband, my family and my many friends in all of the corners of the globe and I think – these people are Amazing!

While it may seem that sometimes (or lots of times) we arrive at every major milestone rather easily, the truth is – it takes a lot to get here. It takes a lot to get wherever you are. Whether you’re dodging bullets or vomit, climbing mountains or stumbling over Legos – if it feels easy, it’s easy because you’re good at it, you hold your head up and focus on putting one foot in front of the other. If it feels difficult, it’s difficult because you’re human and sometimes life throws us some really nasty stuff. We all fall on both ends of this spectrum – the person who sails through and the person who gets thrown off course.

Let’s remember this for ourselves and for the people who surround us. Take some time today to say, “Close call! Good job! Way to hang in there!” or “Wow, you’re getting good at this! Hard work’s paying off! Nicely done!” No judgment, just love, for all the dedication it takes to get here.

Changing the Way We Change

Still.
Still.

Here’s a place we’ve all been at one time or another – confronting the feeling of, “I can’t do this anymore. Something’s gotta’ give!” Whether it’s too much work, school, parenting, partnering, loving, caring, hating or even having fun – too much (or, frankly, too little) of anything can send us reeling toward change. Reeling, flailing, careening, spinning…kicking and screaming?

I think sometimes we have the common collective knowledge that discomfort brings about change. It’s that whole idea of hitting rock bottom. You have to get to the most miserable place in order to climb your way out and regain your sense of freedom and happiness.

But I’ve been thinking lately about how we sometimes skip a very important place in the middle. When we get to the point where we know we need to make a change, that change is often born out of the spinning of our brains. In a sense, it’s like we’re drowning and looking for anything to hang on to. Maybe this is the answer! Or this! Or, I could do that!

At some point we just end up choosing something. Sometimes it’s the right thing – the world rebalances and we’re on our way. Other times we quickly find ourselves right back where we started – in the whirlpool, grasping for driftwood.

Why? The answer may be different for each of us, but in my own life this has often been that I’ve missed an important step – stillness. When change is upon us we often go into fight or flight mode. We’re in it for survival and, instinctively, that means – RUN! But, often there’s a part of us that just needs to slow down, stop, watch and wait.

When we slow down and listen we can discover that change isn’t something we control, it’s something we go along with for a time so that, upon arrival, we’re more clear-headed and openhearted about which paths most suit us next.

So next time, before flailing (or after just a little bit of it), try being still. You never know – perhaps good things really do come to those who wait.

Adventure on Your Own Terms

Recently, I found a box of old photos and letters from the early days of my international adventures. Those were such crazy times. No village was too remote, no sea too shark infested, no meal too meager. As backpackers, my husband and I really loved to rough it. One of our favorite tasks was to see how long we could go on as little money as possible. We were disdainful of tour groups, convenience and any mode of transportation that gave you your own private seat or didn’t include caged (or free roaming) chickens.

While we’ve long-since left behind the backpacker lifestyle, I’m often reminded of the competitive edge that this type of experience implies. It is, in a sense, the “Go Native!” philosophy of travel. It’s the idea that if you don’t strip yourself down and challenge yourself to some predetermined standard of awesomeness, you’re not really living at all and that the experience is without merit or value.

For the record, I’d like us to do away with that notion. Here are my top five reasons why:

  1. Life is not a competition! Yes, life is to be fully lived, but you can only know what full living is when you ask yourself how you want to live. Wanna’ go climb Mt. Everest? Go for it! Prefer to climb the small hill outside town to get a better view of the countryside? That’s fine too. No one person lives the expat life better simply by doing more, having “bigger” adventures or taking on more risk. It just doesn’t work that way. So stop comparing yourself to others and pack your suitcase just how you like it.
  2. You like what you like. I’m all for trying new things. In fact, I love to try new things. But, I wonder why we so often force ourselves to keep doing things we don’t really like. You might move to Japan one day and you might really, really hate sushi. That is fine. Be kind to yourself. Own up to it. Move on.
  3. Your priorities and interests change. We all know this is true, but so many of us feel like if we trade a sleeping bag on the floor of a random person we met on a train for a comfy bed in an actual hotel that somehow we’re selling out. This is not a sell out. This is you deciding that you want a good night’s sleep – nothing more. The same goes for transportation, food, and the amount you’re willing to spend for comfort, ease and safety. It doesn’t mean you’re old or boring or uncool, it means you have preferences. That’s all.
  4. You can’t actually Go Native. This is true. To the extent that any of us are native to any particular place on Earth, we are all unique. We can strive to understand others and help others better understand us. That’s the best we can do. We can always do better to be present in whatever place we seem to have landed, but the minute we think we have arrived is the minute we cease to continue to get to know the new things we see.
  5. You’re evolving and so is everything around you. Life is in a constant state of flux and this is even truer when you get out of your element. There is so much that is unpredictable in the great big world out there. And – look at you! You’re adapting to every twist and turn and always doing the best you can with the information you have available. What more can you hope for? I say cut yourself some slack and enjoy the twisty ride!

So – adventure on! Near or far, here or there. In all ways, exactly as you are now, with an eye on how you hope to be tomorrow.

It Takes One to Know One

So here’s an interesting quote I was reminded of today: “It takes one to know one.” That old playground taunt we’ve all heard, but in a completely different context. It came up as a topic of discussion in a class I’m taking.

We were talking about how best to deal with “challenging” people in our lives, the people we spend time tolerating, but not truly loving or accepting. I mentioned that, for me, when I find myself irked by someone, one thing I try to do is recognize what fear, worry, anxiety or judgment about my own self might be triggered by seeing a particular trait in someone else. In short, I imagine that on the other side of ego, we have much more in common than I’d care to admit. Sometimes this process is excruciatingly difficult.

And of course sometimes I fail, but I find the practice, even when it’s unsuccessful, to be a wonderful opportunity for growth. In its simplest form it’s a great stress-reducer. But, more often than not it leads to profound levels of insight. At its best, it deepens your emotional and spiritual core.

There are lots of different strategies for taking on this process.

From my perspective, the end goal of this type of work is beginning to recognize that our suffering is ours and ours alone. Sometimes people make poor choices in how they treat us, but our choice lies in how we respond to that treatment, what we choose to believe about the relationship or interaction, what we choose to recognize about the “difficult” person and what level of personal growth we agree to accept in order to be more at peace in our lives. And, it’s important to remember, the behaviors of others are not about us, but our feelings and responses absolutely are. It’s worth it to take yourself out on a limb to get better at dealing with stressful people.

If you’re interested in gaining some clarity around this in your own life, below are some strategies, exercises and reflections that you might find helpful. Go ahead and give one (or all) of them a go! I guarantee you’ll thank yourself for it.

The Mirror of Relationship – from the Chopra Center
Byron Katie’s The Work
Tara Brach’s The RAIN Model

The Take-Aways

As the mother of three children, I often find myself in awe of the incredible insight that can come from conversations with them. There are times when I realize that it’s quite possible that the few minutes we’re chatting over getting dinner in the oven or buckling seatbelts might just be one of those moments they’ll remember forever.

One particular conversation I had the other day with my 8-year-old, really caused me to reflect on the messages we receive as children (or, frankly, throughout our lives). The messages, positive or negative, that get stuck in our brains and keep coming up over and over again. The voices that tell us what to do and not do…what’s okay and what isn’t.

Our conversation went like this:

Him: Mom, I don’t know if I want to be an actor or an architect and engineer when I grow up.

Me: Well, you can be both. You don’t really have to choose between the two.

Him: Ya’ that’s right! You can change your mind about what you want to be as much as you like.

Me: That’s right.

Him: So maybe I’ll be an actor and when I get tired of that I’ll become and architect and engineer.

Me: Sounds good. What if someone tells you, “Hey, you can’t do that!”

Him: Then I’ll say, “Yes I can!”

Me: What if they tell you, “Acting isn’t a good career!”

Him: Then I’ll just say, “I like it!”

Me: And if they say, “But you won’t make any money!”

Him: I don’t care. It’s what I like.

So, there will come a point in his life when he realizes that maybe all this isn’t 100% as simple as he thinks. Life can be a series of trade-offs and sometimes we really do find ourselves having to make difficult decisions about what will work best for our families and ourselves. And, of course, he’s only eight so he might decide next week he wants to be a something else entirely.

But, my hope for him is that he looks back on this and remembers a few key words – choice (I’m free to choose and the choice is mine and mine alone…to make and to own), like (I should do what I like, what I enjoy and what makes me happy) and, I hope, love (because, of course, his Mama will always, always love him to matter what road he ends up on).

I can’t predict his future, but I can maximize that from these handful of random conversations he gets only the very best take-aways.

 

 

 

Taking a Closer Look

I live in one of the most unique places on Earth. Things that exist here in Madagascar sometimes don’t exist anywhere else in the world. In fact, a whopping 75% of plant and animal species in Madagascar live nowhere else on the planet…nowhere!

But this is also a place that can feel quite sad. It is so beautiful, but there is also so much pain. This is a place where political instability constantly seems just around the corner, the roads and the garbage get worse and worse every week and sometimes there are only 10 or so small children begging on the street between my house and the supermarket 2 miles away…but more often than not the number hovers around 20. We constantly live with the profound awareness that our lives are so easy compared to those around us.

So, as you can imagine, despite the beauty and incredible uniqueness, living here can be complicated. It’s easy to feel like there’s no hope. And, as much as I hate to say it, maybe there isn’t. But, then sometimes I see something really nice or beautiful or sweet and I think – “Who am I to say there’s no hope. Truthfully, there’s hope everywhere. We just have to open our eyes to see it.”

The other day I witnessed a man, crippled by polio, slide quickly under a bus to retrieve and return a cell phone dropped by a young woman on a motorcycle. I drove past a 30-something dad tickling squeals and squirms out of his little girl as he took a break from selling a small hill of beans on the side of the road (yes, literally, a hill of beans). I saw a group of barefoot and ragged construction workers set about organizing a pick-up soccer game in a field, laughing and pushing and calling – disguising, or perhaps forgetting, the fact that one small cup of rice had likely been their only meal that day.

As expats, we have this particularly unique advantage – we’re almost always surrounded by stark contrast. Even those of us who live in relatively developed countries are faced with the notion of here vs. there, us vs. them, the-way-we-do-things vs. the-way-it’s-done-there.

Of course, on the one hand all of these contrasting sights and sounds are shocking, but on the other hand, they wake us up. We can try to ignore them, but only so much. At the end of the day – it’s just too much to ignore. So the question becomes – what do we do with this?

For me, this exposure to so many different realities has served as an invitation to wake up. If we choose to allow it to be so – it can be an invitation to experience the full range of emotions that come with seeing things that repeatedly don’t make sense. It can be an opportunity to say, “This really bothers me and this doesn’t. Why is that?” Each one of these experiences, each time we look towards what we’re seeing and not away, bring us closer to better understanding ourselves and that keeps us better engaged in our respective journeys.

It takes effort, but we benefit from looking closer. We might be surprised to find that the answers we’re looking for come in places we’d never expect…or, in the ups, downs, ins and outs of the places we never expected to be.

 

Finding the New You During Transition

My children, I’ve learned, believe I’m the best cook in the world. Of course, I’m not the best cook in the world. But, I do love to cook. I appreciate the methodical process of chopping and slicing and spicing. I wasn’t always good at it, but with time I’ve learned. Now I can invent things. It’s a sign for me that I’ve progressed. I use recipes for inspiration, but rarely in an effort to get something precise. And, I love cooking for others. Dinner parties are one of my greatest joys. And I really, really love food.

Being a good cook is a gift I’ve come to learn to accept. It’s been part of the process of nestling myself down into this type of life. This life of an expat where, since everything constantly changes around you, you have no choice but to sit back sometimes and watch where it takes you. I’ve always liked to cook. I don’t think I ever envisioned, or even desired, to be particularly good at it. It snuck up on me, but I’m sticking with it. I’ve made it a part of myself and that’s actually what I think my children see and why they’ve come to believe I must be the best in the world.

For anyone facing profound change – whether adjusting to a new life in a new home or a new country or simply a new job – there comes a time when we can benefit from spending time mentally and emotionally with the things about ourselves that have snuck up on us. Sometimes so much is changing around us that we overlook all the new traditions, habits or processes we’ve added to our life. Sometimes these new parts of our self are working out well. Other times, not so much.

Learning to accept (or not) those new aspects of our self is a process, one that requires honesty and kindness. Not sure where to begin?

Here are 5 questions to consider asking:

1. What am I doing now that I’ve never really done before?

2. Is this new part of my life something I want to nurture or something I want to let go of?

3. What new experiences await me when/if I embrace this part of me?

4. Am I willing to accept the changes in me that will come from allowing this new part of me to grow or continue to develop?

5. When or if I decide I’ve outgrown, moved on from or lost this part of myself, how will I let it go (or bring it back) in the most gentle and kind way possible?

 

 

Resolve to be Curious

It’s that time again. You know what I’m talking about – New Year’s Resolution season! We’re drawn, quite naturally (and historically, if Wikipedia is to be trusted), to the idea that the New Year is a perfect time to make a change, to shake things up – to be better! I couldn’t agree more.

But, most research reveals that very few people – something around 20% – actually achieve the goals they set at the New Year. There are thousands of articles and blog posts that claim to know why this is. I’m not really going to venture to guess. It seems quite simple to me – what works for one person would drive another individual to give up after Day One. We’re all different and your guess is as good as mine as to why some people find the New Year’s Resolution system to be inspirational and others find it to be a giant, looming, impossible invitation to failure.

I wouldn’t be one to say, “Don’t waste your time.” There’s certainly something to be said for setting goals. And, creating a framework for achieving those goals really works for some, maybe even most, people. If you know it works for you – then go for it.

But, if you’ve tried to set New Year’s Resolutions in the past and failed (repeatedly) – you’re not alone. Maybe it’s time to try something different. Here’s a list of questions that might point you in the right direction. They’re in no particular order and I don’t claim to know what you’ll find on the other side. Nor will I make recommendations for what you do with the answers you find. But what I can say is this – regardless of what you resolve to do – no one fails at reflection, exploration or contemplation. So if you must resolve – maybe just resolve to be…curious.

20 Questions to Ask Yourself in Lieu of New Year’s Resolutions

1. What do I really, really, really, really want?

2. Of all the things I do, what do I enjoy doing most?

3. What am I afraid of?

4. What part of my self am I working hardest to hide from others?

5. What am I both good at and enjoy doing?

6. What am I good at, but don’t enjoy doing?

7. Who are the 5 people in my life that most inspire me? Why?

8. What are 3 times in my life when I was faced with a decision and I made the right choice for me at that time?

9. Who am I judging? What does it say about me that I’m holding that judgment?

10. What aspect of my life gives me the greatest sense of purpose?

11. Who are the people in my life with whom I feel the most me?

12. What are 3 things in my life that I am tolerating?

13. Where do I want to go that I’ve never been before?

14. What do I want to say that I’ve never said?

15. Who in my life loves me most of all?

16. What emotions or feelings freak me out?

17. What would I prefer to do less of?

18. What would I prefer to do more of?

19. When do I feel closest to God? (God, as you define it – whatever draws you closer to your spiritual center)

20. If tomorrow were my last day, what would I let go of?

 

 

 

Honestly and Gently

I’m reading a book by the Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön called Comfortable with Uncertainty. This line really spoke to me: “The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.”

Honestly and gently.

Each of us wraps up from time to time in the comforting blanket of “my story.” The things we “know” to be real. The events we’re “certain” have shaped us. And we use that story, for better or worse, to paint the picture of our future. But in the moment when we think we’ve got it all wrapped up, the picture painted, the dots connected, is when we begin to shut ourselves out to seeing things a different way. And that’s when we stop being honest with ourselves…because, hey, it’s pretty comfy to have everything all figured out….or so we tell ourselves.

And so, wherever we’re headed on this journey, we can start by respecting ourselves enough to ask questions – big questions – and then accept, with full honesty, whatever answers we find.

But what if we don’t like what we find?

Well, that’s what it means to be gentle. We get to turn off that tape that tells us we’re stupid for the mistakes we make, weak for the losses we suffer or wrong for the harm we may do and we get to replace it with, “I’m human. It’s okay. Tomorrow is another day.” So, we get to be honest and then we get to be gentle. We’re privileged to see where we’re acting against our own best interest and then, to top it off, we get to change the judgment tape. We get to start over. Honestly and gently.

How awesome is that!? Frankly, I can’t think of a better place to start.

 

 

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.”