I’m so happy (and honored) to have this piece on Tiny Buddha.
I’m so happy (and honored) to have this piece on Tiny Buddha.
It’s fall in Washington, DC right now and the leaves are changing. I really, really love the changing of the leaves. I actually don’t know if words can express how I feel about the changing of the leaves.
For most of my life I haven’t lived in places where we have true fall. As a result, the whole thing is still kind of new to me. I’m quite awe-struck by it.
But I find it’s not just the fact that it’s so pretty and incredible. Nor is it the fact that, if you think about the science of it, you’re bound to be completely blown away. The truth is, I’m also amazed by the everyday-ness of it. We’re all going around, doing our thing and there the leaves are – doing their show, bright and blowing in the cooling wind.
This combination – of awesomeness and ordinariness – is really such an incredible metaphor for life. There are all these ways in which we should probably be more awestruck by everyday things like breathing and eating and sleeping and talking. And there’s all this incredible stuff that we get to see that’s totally not our typical daily experience – from the tiny degrees of separation between people (the interconnectedness of supposed strangers NEVER ceases to amaze me) to the fact that places like the Amazon Rainforest and the Sahara exist.
Our lives are such a sweet combination of nothing new and something new. And, you know, I think when we allow the line between those two distinct experiences to get blurry we really enjoy the full flavor of life. That’s exactly the time when we begin to realize there’s nothing really ordinary in the stuff we do every day and, truth be told, we’d see a lot of amazing stuff happening all around, if we’d just take more time to see it.
I recently finished the novel You Are One of Them by Elliot Holt. There’s a lot in the plot that will sound familiar to expats – travel, intercultural relationships, cross-cultural adjustment.
It also talks a lot about diplomats and expats. The book takes place between Washington DC and a largely expat community in Moscow. Here’s the sentiment that runs strong throughout the book – diplomats hide behind walls, diplomats and expats drink too much, diplomats and expats aren’t able to form relationships because, in anticipation of a departure, they never fully commit themselves to those around them. We’ve heard this all before. I’m not going to be the one to say this is never true, but for me, these aren’t the norm of the definition of what it’s like to be a member of a diplomatic or expatriate family – these are the exceptions.
When I look around my community here’s what I see…
Expats are people who connect to and bond with individuals from a very wide array of political and religious beliefs. We do this because we realize that these things have very little to do with friendship.
We’re individuals who can strike up conversations with anyone, anywhere and at anytime. We seem to inherently recognize the transience of the world around us so we take advantage of the little bits of time we have. We’re not all extroverted, but we do know how to start and maintain a conversation. In my experience, we’re also pretty good at seeing the value in even small moments.
When we experience something that takes us back to another time and place it connects us with friends across the globe. We send a quick message via Facebook or text or email that says, “I saw this and thought of you friend. I miss you.” Our brains are wired with a fascinating map of experience and those experiences don’t exist in a vacuum – they’re connected to our friends and family and they’re enriched by the experience of having shared them with someone who matters.
Expats give new meaning to the terms adaptability, flexibility, curiosity and acceptance. We live these values and they become the scaffolding that supports our constant movement.
And above all else, I see tremendous amounts of love and commitment and community.
So, why do the stereotypes persist? I don’t know. I’m not sure it matters why as much as it matters that, as a community, we know that we’re not glitzy people, sitting behind gold-plated walls, drinking champagne and backstabbing our neighbors. And perhaps in the end that reality is self-perpetuating – the more we live authentically, the more we represent the new diplomat or the new expat community, the more power we have to alter the stereotype. It will be from that place, I feel, that the depth of our experiences and complexity of our choices will reveal not the old image, but the new one. If I look around at my friends I think they’re doing a pretty good job of breaking the stereotypes and I can’t imagine a more wonderful group of people to love.
There’s no other way to put this – I’m really, really, really into summer. I love the heat. I love the food – eating fresh and light from the garden. I love making a meal out of chips and guac and a nice cold beer. And then there are the long, long drawn out evenings. One of my all time favorite feelings is being tired and worn out from a day in the sun.
So many of the details of my summer memories are wrapped up in my childhood. Growing up in the Texas Hill Country gave my brother and me (and all of our friends) the pleasures of Hamilton Pool, Barton Springs and Pace Bend. And when those places got too crowded or it was too far to drive or it was late at night, there was always swimming at a friend’s pool (or even occasionally in a rumored-to-be-water-moccasin-infested tank…for the under-informed, a tank is what we call a small pond that cows can drink from). We also had lots of lots of barbeque and tacos and chips and salsa and burgers on the grill and Blue Bell. And, well, it really is very, very, very, very hot – it creates a certain way of being…lazy, and relaxed, and kind of tough in a weird sort of way. When I’m here in Texas in the summer I feel completely defined by this part of my past. There’s no place I’d rather be and I spend a lot of time watching my kids as they learn to navigate these weeks of summer that we always spend here.
For those of us nomads that are parents, there’s a point at which we ask ourselves what we’re going to do to make sure our children feel that somewhere is home. For my husband and me, the single most important factor is that our children feel that home is where we hang out hats. The walls may be different, the beds not “truly” our own, the sights and smells and sounds a cacophony of the new and strange, but if we’re together (the five of us) that’s all that really matters. We take time to make traditions that fit our mobile lifestyle and we stick with them through thick and thin.
But in addition to creating a sense of family that goes wherever we go, we’ve also committed to making our hometown (for my husband and me that’s Austin) feel like home. It’s exciting to see that as our children get older, they’re collecting experiences that lay the groundwork for their own fond memories of this special time. The experiences are their own and different from mine – different camps, different places to swim, their own friends and interests, but they’re punctuated by the many things that are familiar to me – the same food, the incessant heat, the long, long evenings that seem to go on forever.
Watching all of this come together (the combination of our never-ending moves abroad along with summers spent back home in Austin) fills me with an incredible awareness of how very special and unique our lifestyle is. I feel the passage of time and know that summer days that seem so recent are now twenty or even thirty years ago for me. I know for sure that my own love of this place with its heat and water and good food and long days is being instilled in them. At the same time, I note with such a full sense of peace and satisfaction, that they’re so blessed to have this and to have all of the other intricate and complicated parts of their international life too. I can’t help but be excited in advance for the incredible mix of memories they’re creating – here in the Texas Hill Country and in so many little corners of the world. Love. Love. Love. Summer.
My paternal grandmother passed away this past week. I made the trip up to Indiana to her funeral alone. I can’t say I was exactly looking forward to the trip, but I also knew I had to go. There was of course the knowledge that it was the right thing to do, I could easily get away and it would be nice to be with my family during this time. I also couldn’t shake the feeling that I never in a million years imagined I would be here in the US right now. It felt like a door in the universe was opening up and there was no question I would need to walk through it.
Death is sad. Of course. But, it’s inevitable and my grandmother had lived a long, full life. She was blessed with 4 children, 16 grandchildren and over 20 great-grandchildren. How incredibly awesome is that!? She was married to my grandfather for 64 years. They started dating when she was 13. Really, they were one – in the beautiful sense in which soul mates with time just fall into a natural rhythm of being together.
I spent much of the time over the weekend reflecting on the awesome power of values, tradition and the give-and-take of family interactions. Each member of the family makes up one piece in the long, long mish-mash of individual characters. But even in that seeming haphazard existence of each person (born into a family, but influenced by so many different experiences and stories that bump and guide each trajectory), bits of what most makes us family come through.
As family and friends spoke at my grandmother’s memorial service, the same themes kept floating to the surface – unconditional love and acceptance, hard work, adventure. It was an experience of looking around and realizing, “Hey, I come from somewhere.” My own experiences have shaped my beliefs, but the base work – We’re here for you. We love you. Work hard! Get out there and have some adventures! – were laid and then reinforced a long time ago.
All of that was so clear and beautiful this weekend in the process of remembering my grandmother. And, it makes me realize, maybe in remembering her, we’re reminded of what makes up our Selves…on our own or a part of one really, really big family.
Bon Voyage Mary Esther. Thank you Grandma. xo