Why Gratitude is the Best Answer for Difficult Expat Emotions

hands in mittens holding warm hot cup of coffee with gratitude written in bold

Five years ago when my middle child was suddenly diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes, we left everything behind from our life in Antananarivo, Madagascar and headed to my parents house in Texas for 6 months.

It was an incredibly emotional time, full of ups and downs and doubts about what our expat life would look like from then on. And, it was also a time of reevaluating and refocusing. We started to see that we could live quite normally even in the face of challenge and that our international existence would actually return, more or less, to normal.

It was also one of the most wonderful times for my children to reconnect with their grandparents. For just a little while – we saw what our life would have been like had we never left Austin. Baseball and soccer, tacos and live music, Barton Springs and fire ants.

Within a year of our 6-month stay in Austin, however, my step-dad was diagnosed with cancer. He died just shy of 2 years from our emergency evacuation from Madagascar.

There is a part of me that will never fully be able to accept my stepdad’s death. It seems he was too young, too healthy, too much a part of our lives to be gone so suddenly. It seems so wrong to have befallen a man that was so universally loved, a person that seemed to want nothing much more than to love the people in his life…and go fishing…and drink an ice-cold Corona on a sweltering Texas day.

Never in a million years would I wish to repeat the chaos and upheaval of our departure from Madagascar. If I could wave a magic wand, I would take my son’s diagnosis any day so that he could go on living as carefree as a 10 year old should. And yet, because we were in Austin, we had those precious 6 months with my stepdad. I can’t say I’d change it.

The deep, deep well of gratitude I feel for having had that time in which every day my kids got to know their PawPaw offers a sense of peace and acceptance about the way things turned out. My gratitude for those unexpected days in Texas provides a sort of balm that softens the sting of the loss and reminds me that having been loved so unconditionally by this one person is an incredible blessing, even if he wasn’t in our lives as long as we all wanted.

Gratitude serves this purpose in our lives. It’s not that by being grateful we suddenly erase the shittiness of bad things that happen. I strongly disagree with the idea that in our most difficult emotions we should simply apply a little gratitude and everything will be okay. What we can see, however, is that gratitude offers us the chance to see our experiences and our emotions in the context of the larger picture.

For expats, one of the biggest gifts of practicing gratitude is that it’s so portable. You can step into a grateful mindset no matter where you are – from the airport security line to the first loving embrace of a brand new friend. Learning to engage with gratitude provides unique ways in which to deal with many of the difficult emotions that plague our unpredictable international lives – not so that we can always feel exactly the way we want to feel, but so that we can better address the very real emotions that sometimes knock us flat.

Gratitude requires reflection, insight and mindful awareness and these are all traits that help us get a handle our difficult emotions. It helps us to see ourselves at a distance so that we can make clear, thoughtful decisions about how we want to embrace and honor the ways we feel.

Moreover, more than being simply a state of mind, gratitude inherently offers us a chance to take action. We can feel thankful with our thoughts or our hearts (and sometimes that’s enough to help us address our emotions), but gratitude also compels us to act. It encourages us to actually say thank you – to write the letter, to make the phone call, to rephrase the complaint, to offer and to receive the support we need.

If you’re feeling helplessness, sadness, envy, anger, rejection or grief, it can be helpful to process those emotions by seeing them as part of your complex life – a life that also includes good things…even good things directly related to the challenges you’re facing.

If you find you’re in a rut, try these gratitude-centered, self-coaching questions. They might get you started in gaining new space to see, move through and heal from the difficult emotions you encounter in your expat life.

  • What uncomfortable emotions am I feeling right now?
  • What might I appreciate about these difficult emotions? What might they be trying to tell me? What gifts might be hidden within these emotions?
  • Who in my life has been the most supportive and understanding during this challenging experience? How can I acknowledge my gratitude to this person?
  • What skills or abilities do I possess that have helped me to move through this experience? What person or situation has supported my cultivation of these abilities? How can I offer gratitude to that person or situation?
  • Who have I witnessed overcome challenges? In what ways am I grateful for the opportunity to learn from this person?

How has maintaining gratitude helped you deal with difficult expat emotions? Based on your experience, what questions would you add to the list above? I’d be honored to hear more about how gratitude has supported your expat journey in the comments.

Throughout the month of December 2018, I’ll be posting more self-coaching questions on gratitude on my Facebook page. Like the World Tree Coaching Facebook page to join the conversation.

The Home That Lives Inside Us

I grew up in Central Texas. Every time I go home for the summer, there is a point at which the heat hits me.

I step out on to the back patio at my mom’s house and feel it burn under my feet. I open the car door and feel the steamy escape of 100+ temperatures even before I sit down and turn the air-conditioning up full blast. My poor, sad cup of Blue Bell melts all around the edges so the chocolate just kinda’ floats in the frothy soup of sea-green mint.

You’d think I’d hate it, but I don’t. In fact, I adore it. Sometimes I get a knot in my throat and I tear up with I think about the way the sun feels on my skin in August. That heat is full of a million tiny memories from a lifetime both in and out of the Hill Country. It’s the heat that calls to me – Welcome Home.

It’s not a given that every person who goes “home” for the summer (or winter) really wants to be there. There are people for whom the trip is fraught with anxiety, stress, conflict and discomfort. Maybe you have a place to stay or maybe you don’t. Maybe your friends and family welcome you with loving and open arms, but maybe you don’t even have anyone back there anymore. Maybe the unhappy memories are too numerous to count and the joyful past too fleeting to even bother to see. It’s not the same for all of us. I get that.

And yet, what we don’t get to escape is the fact that all the places we’ve lived take up residence inside of us. The storage of our memories, traumas, joyful occasions and traditions may be place-specific, but they become layers of what makes us, Us no matter where we go. Like…we’re the home and all that stuff is collecting there inside us.

And this is where it gets complicated. Even if we want to, there’s really no way to ignore all the baggage, the junk, the odds and ins, old snapshots and keepsakes piling up there because we carry it with us.

The challenge we face is figuring out how we sort through all of these experiences, memories and pieces of information so that we can begin to create a coherent sense of home.

Why do that?

Because it’s like a rarely entered attic, whether you tend to it or not the stuff is there whether you tend to it or not. Right now it’s probably just weighing you down. Paying attention to it now lets you see what you treasure as a piece of your home identity, what you can learn from but never want to repeat again and what you can simply let go.

Where do we begin?

Doing this takes learning to pay attention. We can do things like…

  • Noticing what emotions come up for us in a given situation
  • Paying attention to the physical sensations we experience when we engage in certain activities or traditions.
  • Tuning in to see which relationships we approach with joy and which ones we anticipate with dread.
  • Making a mental catalogue of the sites, sounds, smells and sensations that accompany certain places. What puts a smile on our faces? What brings tears to our eyes?
  • Asking lots of questions about what we notice in making these observations. We can get curious and engaged with who we are in the place we call home. We can approach each moment from a state of “This is interesting…” and ask “Hmmm, what’s here?”

I realize this might seem totally overwhelming from the place of kids and suitcases and parents and flights and all the many, many annoying or joyful things that go into a trip back home. But here’s the thing – this is part of our life’s work. It’s part of creating who we are so that we’re better for ourselves and for those around us. And it will feel good to grow in this way…I promise.

Are you ready for more support in finding a sense of home no matter where you go?

Join my mailing list, enroll in one of my online courses in mindfulness for expats or schedule a 30-minute, free, no-obligation conversation to learn more about coaching.

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.”

New Year’s Reflections for the Globally Mobile

I’m so happy to share my latest article for I Am a Triangle.

Click here to read about how turning your New Year’s resolutions into New Year’s questions can be a great way to tune in and reflect on where you find yourself during this important transition.

And, as always, consider joining the I Am a Triangle online community through Mighty Networks! It’s a great way to meet like-minded, internationally mobile people doing great things. Click here to join.

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.

Not Lost At All

Last year, in the space of 9 months, we lost my step-dad and both of my maternal grandparents. They were all people who’s influence in my life cannot be overstated.

You know those people who say or do something and you go back to it forever? The people whose words you access when you’re struggling with a decision? The individuals whose embrace, quiet reflection or gentle laugh brings you home even when you don’t know where you are?

Even some of their tiny, little throw-away sentences, things they probably would not even remember having said, now have permanent real estate in my brain. “I can’t really get on board with hell because I know some really nice Hindus,” or “I wouldn’t worry about it. You were dating. That’s what dating’s for.” I’ve filed them all away for reference. Small things may even have become the guiding force of my views on big things like love and spirituality.

I hold on to the fact that if I close my eyes I can still hear their voices. In that sense, they’re not really lost. Of course this means no hugs. But they’re not gone. Mostly I just refuse to believe that they are. I can still know them. Because of the millions of words exchanged between us over most of four decades I can still hear their responses to specific situations. It’s like my own secret panel of advisors.

This is kind of true for all my friends in far off places too. No, it’s not the same, but it’s not completely different either. There are moments when I know a dear friend is sleeping in her corner of the globe. I won’t wake her, but I know what she’d say and what she’d do if she were here. She (the many, many she’s all over) has her own stock of advice that I need to take and embraces that I need to accept. She’s another member of this invisible panel of advisors collected in my deepest thoughts.

And come to think of it – this isn’t just about the people either. All the little rincones of the globe hold their reflections that guide me too. I bet it’s the same for you. When you walk outside in Japan, sometimes you think, “This day feels like Madagascar.” Each place we’ve been has a reflection, a memory, some words of wisdom locked away to guide us.

We move to all these places and we meet all these people, but they don’t leave us.

We close our eyes and we can tread the same path from the fruit stand back to the office without even thinking. We hear the same car sounds and smell the same mix of exhaust and sea and in those moments all the things we learned come rushing back. The one thing she said that day, in the car, in the summer of 1984 that changed your whole perspective of the world. A clink of a glass, the scent of a loved one’s perfume, the feel of someone’s hand in your own – each little memory deepens the map in your mind that leads you back to wisdom.

So it’s not all lost, just a little bit different.

Just because you go from place to place doesn’t make you lost either, maybe just a little bit different.

There’s a lot of wisdom stored in those mental maps you’ve collected. Go ahead. Close your eyes and find it.

How Saying No to Gifts Helped Us Find Our Favorite Ones

christmas-gift

My husband and I don’t exchange Christmas gifts anymore. Actually, we haven’t for years. It was a gradual process that has turned out to be one of my favorite details of our holiday celebrations. The process was accidental at first, but the reasons for our decision are rooted in our desire to live more from our personal values and not from outside expectations.

Of course, like anyone, we have moments where we struggle to find the balance between our values and the demands of a hectic international lifestyle, but this no-gifts philosophy has been a real success story for us. Here’s why.

I come from a gift-giving family. My husband does not. I enjoyed the process of finding the perfect opportunity to share something special. My husband approached it with dread and shame. He never felt like he’d live up to what I’d chosen for him. It was stressful. Something about that seemed really wrong. A gift shouldn’t make you feel bad. So we started to make gifts more simple. Nothing fancy. Maybe a just a book. Socks are fine.

Then, when our children were born their excitement at opening a special gift seemed like a gift to us. Nothing either of us could receive would measure up to the delight of seeing what Santa had placed beneath the tree. We started to get forgetful about our own and we realized it didn’t necessarily matter.

And so the gifts started to fade. They seemed less like a priority. We moved to just filling our stockings. That’s funny too because we realized – we take good care of our needs. We don’t need each other to buy our socks, or underwear, or Chapstick or purse-sized packets of tissue. That’s a lot of effort to fill your sock with stuff you can throw in the Amazon cart when you have a few minutes at work. Why are we doing this again?

About six years ago we started hosting Christmas Eve for our friends and their children. That was always fun. It enhanced the feeling that the real party wasn’t in the presents, but in the company.

Then one Christmas season, 4 years ago, it all seemed to click – we decided to throw a huge Christmas Eve potluck for our friends and neighbors. There were around 80 people and we immersed ourselves joyfully in the planning. The love we felt in setting the stage for a memorable evening for a group of diverse people from all over the world spending Christmas at a remote corner of the globe superseded any gift we could have cobbled together.

That gift – the gift of sharing together in welcoming friends – is now the most special gift that we offer each other.

Habit and tradition are hard to overcome. This is where people often have their values challenged – at the intersection between doing what feels right for us and what we’re told we should do. However, if we pay attention and tune in mindfully to our intentions during the holiday season, we may see a whole new way to celebrate.

The holiday season – whether Thanksgiving, Christmas or the New Year – is a natural time for self-reflection. This year, how will you turn away from the shoulds and must-dos (even if they’re part of tradition) and live more from your values? What do you think you might be willing to give up, if it meant you’d find just a little more happiness or peace under the tree?

Traditions and Rituals for Smoother Transitions

Traditions for Transfer

I recently came across a letter I wrote to myself in January 2000. It’s sealed. I haven’t opened it and I’m not sure when I will. The idea of writing letters to myself has long had this sort of mysterious appeal to me. I think it lies in the idea that there’s a gift in finding a way to be your own personal cheerleader months or even years later.

This summer we will move for the 8th time in 7 years. This move will just be from Yokohama to Tokyo, but the difference of 15 miles will bring a lot of changes – new neighborhood, new friends, new schools for the kids, a new job for my husband, new grocery stores and post offices, restaurants and doctors’ offices. A lot will stay the same, but many more things will be different.

It makes me wonder if perhaps I should be writing a letter to myself each time I move. It might be something new to add to the things we already do. I think it might be nice to have a letter I write before I move that I could then open up and read before the next move. I love the idea of rituals around moving and traditions that individuals and families create to ease the transitions.

There are so many wonderful, insight-building and compassionate ways to ritualize a move and to make transitions smoother. I’ve come across so many of these activities over the years. I’m seriously considering adding the letter to myself to the list.

Are you facing an international move? Is this your first or one of many? Have you ever used a ritual or tradition to make your move feel more easeful?

Here are a few of my favorites:

1. (New one!) Write a letter to yourself. Include your thoughts and feelings, your expectations and worries. Seal it. Hold onto it and read it just before your next move.

2. Create a space box. This is a personal one that my husband and I started when we were first dating back in 1998. We still use it to this day and I’ve included it in my book. Read the details here.

3. Inspire conversation. This one came from a recent discussion on a Facebook group I belong to. Place large pieces of paper on the walls around your dining room (or some place else that your family regularly gathers together). Write the following headings one per paper on each of the papers – Things we will miss. Things we won’t miss. Things that will stay the same. Things we are looking forward to. Each night at dinner, invite family members to talk about the different categories and add things to the various lists.

4. Say “thank you.” Purchase (or make) small, simple thank you gifts for the people who’ve made your home away from home feel like home. I especially like this for “community helpers” – the people who you don’t know well, but who always lend a hand, a smile or infinite patience when you’re out and about and trying your best to make a go of your life overseas.

5. Make an Instagram wall collage. This is one I really love. When we were temporarily back home a couple of years ago I took photos of my favorite places around my hometown. It now serves as a collage in our entryway. People often comment on it and I like getting the chance to brag about my hometown a bit. I think it could also be a great way to remember your favorite places from one of your other “homes.”

6. Create a soundtrack of your time in your adopted home. Like many people, our family is very much inspired by the music that makes up a particular time and place in which we’ve lived. We love hearing songs that remind us of the different phases of our life. This activity is especially fun if you live somewhere with music that’s quite different than what you’re used to in your home country.

These are just a few of the many options for ritualizing transition. You might also try Googling to find some other ideas or ask your other expat friends.

Also, be sure to check out my book – The Expat Activity Book. All 20 exercises are relevant to almost every phase of transition.

I’d love to hear your ideas and share them with other blog readers. Leave me a comment below with some of your favorite transition traditions.

Seychelles Mama

Space for Soul Mates

Soul Mates...

This article was originally published on Expat Bookshop – a great resource for finding expat-focused, expat-friendly, and expat-written books.

She took the words right out of my mouth. We laughed. Then five minutes later I finished her sentence. Then we laughed again and really made eye contact.

This wasn’t an old friend – someone I’d known since childhood and with whom I’d shared countless hours (although those women do exist in my life). This was a new person. A new person who lives like me (here and there and everywhere) who just happened to be one of my friend soul mates. She is a person who, if I were to have stayed in one place, I never would have met. Ever.

That always kind of scares me. What if we had never met? What if someone else had taken my place? What if someone else were to have taken hers in my heart?

Of course, after almost 20 years of going from home to home, I know there’s nothing to worry about. We would have met, or not, but one thing is certain, we would have both found other soul mates. We each have found other soul mates. There are a lot of us.

You know that question where they ask which 10 people, living or dead, you would invite to a dinner party? I love that question. Since becoming an expat I play it in my head. Only instead of famous people, I list all my soul mates from all over the world. My big fantasy is that their paths could cross. That they would know each other. That they would make new soul mate friends with a person they would never have met in the real world. But, of course, they will never meet because some people’s paths will indeed never intersect.

Is this a good fantasy or a waste of time?

Perhaps if I were rich, it would be a good fantasy. Maybe I’d hold a lottery and the top winners of the drawing would earn an all-expenses-paid trip to a Caribbean island where all of my soul mates would get to know each other. Maybe we’d plan yearly trips to New York City, or Paris, or Hong Kong where we’d shop and eat and drink and laugh and cry knowing that we were meant to be together all along. It sounds slightly overindulgent just to think about it. Pure fantasy.

Then again, maybe it’s simply a good mental exercise.

I don’t find I’m longing for the impossible. I know that I can probably never make this happen. But what I do find is that this leaves me hopeful for the relationships that are yet to begin in someplace new. Finding these friends opens my eyes. It makes me look at people and see who they are – the parts they hold close and the parts they lay all out. It reminds me there’s potential in every person. Honestly, it reminds me that there’s potential in me. Bad days will come, but we’re no less worthy of being seen. Of being loved. Of being someone’s new soul mate.

So as we keep rolling around the world, each new home provides the opportunity to connect and to find someone who truly “gets” us. It ends up being not just our world that gets bigger, but our hearts too. We open them up so wide to take in all these new people. And the wider and fuller and more colorful our hearts become, the more room we leave to gently sooth the ache of goodbye when it comes.

When it always comes.

 

Expat Life with a Double Buggy

My Tana Kitchen (Home Poems)

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One of the most exciting and enjoyable aspects of the Families in Global Transition Conference this past weekend was the way in which personal narrative – both written and spoken – was taken as an essential part of processing the expat experience. I’ve written about personal narrative before and in The Expat Activity Book I even provide an exercise on using one’s story as an insight tool, but there was something incredibly moving about being surrounded by people for whom the process of transitioning one’s story from the heart to the page was seen as a given.

One of the most memorable moments of the conference for me was when I attended the Writing Your Way Home: Capturing a Sense of Place session led by expat writer Nina Sichel and Tales from a Small Planet Literary Editor Patricia Linderman.

During the session we were prompted to write about a place that we had called home. The clock had already started ticking when I scribbled “Tana Kitchen,” down in my notebook.

As I began to transport myself back to the kitchen in our house in Antananarivo, I couldn’t believe how quickly the memories started coming and how emotionally charged the process of writing about it even for just five minutes became. It was impossible to hold back tears. Our kitchen had been my entry into every single day of my life in Madagascar. And the experience of mentally and emotionally revisiting that space holds important keys for me even now.

As I’ve taken more time since the conference to write about my Tana kitchen, I’ve come to realize that I want the process of discovery through story telling to be accessible to every expat. Moreover, I like the idea of supporting people through that process. As a coach, it is something I want to increasingly make a part of my practice.

So, what about you? Do you have a place that moved you…or moves you still? If you revisited it in writing, would it give you new insight, growth or perspective?

I encourage you to give it a try. Close your eyes. What do you see, hear, smell, taste and feel? What do you come to know about yourself and your experience when you go there?

And for now, let me invite you into My Tana Kitchen.

The first place I stepped into upon our arrival “home” to Madagascar was that kitchen.

I can close my eyes now and feel my feet that first jet-lagged morning stepping from the hardwood floor of the entryway onto the tiny, grey, perpetually dusty, black grouted tiles of that kitchen. The floor was always so smooth, but really, no matter how much we Lalaina cleaned it, always had that layer of dust.

But not the red dust that settled everywhere else, this was a grey, speckley dust. Maybe it was dehydrated mold. Is that possible? Mold was always an issue in that kitchen.

We had so much light in our Tana kitchen. An entire wall of windows and then, nestled with just enough space between our ridiculous American fridge filled with French things and vegetables and UHT milk in boxes, and the old sideboard, was a big French door with a view to our hulking, green generator, some pavement, a 10-foot, red adobe wall and the mango tree.

And we’d always want to leave that door open even though the screen had lots of holes and mosquitos would sneak their way in through them. We’d want to leave it open because that’s where you’d watch the rain roll in. And that’s where Lalaina would sit and close her eyes in the afternoon and rest, but never nap. And when the rain would finally shift from rumbling to falling, you’d want to wait as long as possible to close up the door because the breeze through the curtains and the musty, wild smell of the rain felt so good. But then the dusty tile would start to get wet and slippery and you’d finally give in.

Those ugly pink curtains will never leave my mind. Who chooses the curtains in these houses? So much pink…accented with gold. Why? I guess I think maybe the thought was that a woman would be spending lots of time there. And she’d like pink. Funny. And the salmon-colored tile of the countertops…impossible to roll out a pie crust there. Pie crust? Hm…maybe I am the woman they thought might be spending a lot of time in there.

And then there was that big oak sideboard. You know, I kind of liked it. It was the old-school Embassy stuff. The stuff that’s so old that it’s now retro and kind of nice and quirky. Not like the new old stuff from the 80’s that is now, quite simply, just old. Anyway, the top drawer, where we kept all of our Ikea forks and knives and spoons and the tea ball that I move from home to home and never use, was broken. So every time you would open it, it would fall out. Swish, Dunk, Ting! Swish, Dunk, Ting! It saved our toes though. It never fell out all the way. Of course, this was unlike the stools.

Three very heavy, pale-oak-colored Malagasy stools perpetually took up more space than necessary in that kitchen. Utilitarian. And heavy. I’m not kidding here. I mean, really heavy. In our first few weeks one fell on Sam’s toe and he lost his toenail. And my shins were banged up for almost two whole years of running into them as I rounded the corner and, for some reason, forgot that they would be there. And they always made this deep, low screeching sound as they slid across that slightly dirty floor. We were always scooting them around because they were always in the way. And yet we never got rid of them. Utilitarian. They were useful. For sitting on to rest without napping and for teetering upon to get a glass from the high shelf.

From that kitchen, every little corner of that strange house was accessible. If not by sight, then by sound, I knew where everyone was.

In the morning, I would watch as the guards made their way around the house, inspecting things like the pathways of lizards, the stealing of mangos from the part of our tree that hung over the street and the breaking down (once again) of the generator. And I could hear parties from next door. And the clarinet sounds that would blow through our 30-foot jacaranda trees as our musically gifted neighbor filled his free time with song. When friends would come over I could see them asking the guard for entry. “Madame Amy est ici, Madame.” Madame Lourdes. Madame Lisa. And on and on.

And then in the evening, as the children bathed and did homework and I cooked yet another meal from the small list of ingredients to which we ever had access and the chirping of birds gave-way to the creaks of nighttime insects, I’d hear the front gate squeak and “Bonsoir Monsieur,” meant my single-parent day had ended and my back-up was there to embrace save me. All from that kitchen.

That kitchen let us in and let us out. Each morning I would open the metal-latched, heavy wooden, pink-curtained window above the sink. Click. Thudunk. And all of these things would come into my life. And the day would be good because it was consistent and peaceful and nature would be right at the very edge of our shelter…and sometimes even come right in. And then each night, as we prepared to settle down under mosquito netting, we would ask the world to wait safely outside. Thudunk. Click. Locked back up again. The sun would come up and then again it would start all over. One day after the next.

And even though we’re gone now from that home, I realize we’re always surrounded by these bookends. Click. Thudunk. Thudunk. Click. We arrive. We stay. We leave. It’s the life. And while it might be hard sometimes, all this coming and going, it’s packaged nicely when you think about it. There’s one side. Then there’s the next. And oh, how nice, all that stuff in the middle.

Expat Life Linky