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A Belated Merry Advent Letter

*please note! I wrote this last year and then never published it. It felt kind of scary and raw. I have another letter drafted for this year’s Christmas/advent letter. But then I read it again and while parts are not relevant because I’m in the US and the twins graduated, parts were exactly what I needed to be reminded of personally, again. So maybe it will resonate with someone else who needs to choose joy this season. So, I’ll publish it now.

Merry Christmas from Abroad,

Our four-foot tree is up and shedding quite sadly. The Santa costume is being borrowed by a very Saint Nicholas type of fellow. The stockings, for once, are hung on steps and not over the air conditioner with care. The temperature is a chilly 87 degrees. The kitchen smells like ginger snaps and apple cinnamon candles. The grocery store has a horribly skinny Santa, barefoot, with no shirt under his costume, a rather sexy Santa with bright blue eyes. More stripper than Santa.

Its beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

This is our Christmas letter, the one in which we tell you about our exotic summer vacations (Minnesota is, truly, exotic to desert-dwellers) and about our children’s stellar performances at school (define ‘stellar’), about all the things we are really good at (like forgetting new vocab words in one of the three languages we’ve learned), and then show pictures of things we secretly hope you envy, ala the humble brag (like our incredible, rundown house with rats in the ceiling and roaches in the bathrooms).

What if, instead, I’m totally honest? What if, instead, I told you that this year I’m tired?

A few nights ago as we drove to church, a local boy made the shape of a gun with his fingers and shot at my face through the car window. A few days before that while I was running, a man drove by on a motorcycle and punched my ass. I miss my kids almost the whole year ‘round because all of them are at a boarding school two countries away. My husband and I started up a big new project, thirteen years in the dreaming and our hearts bleeding all over our sleeves, and no one told us that start-ups in Africa take a toll on a marriage.

I would like to go to a movie theater and disappear into the cool darkness and forget about it all. There aren’t any movie theaters in the country. I would like to enjoy a nice evening out with my husband but if we go for a walk we are harassed or are simply just bored of the same, limited, not beautiful route. We’ve tried almost every restaurant in town, there aren’t many cultural events like concerts or plays or dances. Plus, sometimes it takes too much energy to go out the front door.

It can be lonely here. This year, I have a full life, rich with new staff and new friends. People who speak my language, people I enjoy deeply and am coming to love. But I feel lonely creatively, if that’s a thing. Lonely for my people, people who pursue a life of creativity and words and I don’t even know if I have people anymore because I don’t seem to fit anywhere. Lonely spiritually, for a community that speaks my language – both the language of my tongue and of my heart.

What a depressing Christmas letter. At least, that’s what I thought when I reread this. But you know what? This isn’t a Christmas letter after all. Its an advent letter. A letter of longing, of waiting, of seeing the holes in things and the struggle of being alive while being fully convinced that hope is never in vain.

Someone asked me what I want to experience of Jesus this advent season. I want to experience joy. Not happiness, not glibness. Deep, abiding joy that acknowledges there are so many broken things in the world but that chooses to delight in the healing, beautiful things in the world. Joy that says, all is not right in the world. But, “all will be well and all will be well and every kind of thing shall be well.” Julian of Norwich

So, I conjure up joy because that is what I want. Joy is what I need. Joy is what my family needs. It feels like the snow falling in a snow globe. The flakes rest on the bottom and then the world is shaken with strenuous effort and a veneer of cheer falls over the scene below. The scene is the same old one, the flakes change nothing, but for a few minutes while they fall, it is Christmas. It is beautiful. And maybe that’s enough for this year.

Merry Advent,

Rachel

When Health Issues Interrupt a Life Overseas

Quick link: 6 Good Things about a Cancerous Life Overseas

I forgot to let you know that last week I wrote about what I am learning to be thankful for as I walk through cancer for A Life Overseas. It is similar to what I shared on the blog yesterday, about gratitude, sorry for the repetitive nature of the two posts!

But it is also different, because there are some specific things I’ve learned about living overseas through this experience. Like how meaningful it is that people from a variety of faith backgrounds love me and are praying for me, or that people literally pray around the clock because of the time change and knowing people all over the world.

Not gonna lie, doing this while we maintain our life abroad sucks. It is not awesome and I do not recommend it. It certainly makes a lot of things harder.

But, it also makes me intensely more grateful, helps me take less for granted, reminds me tangibly of the power of community, makes me thankful for my diverse friendships.

And apparently, God had a plan for my life. That plan included the superb timing of me getting cancer while living in a country that has the medical prowess to detect and treat it. #miracles

But, ahem, God? What about my husband? One big perk of marriage is having a companion for life’s junk. I don’t like that part of this plan, that part that has him in Djibouti and me in Minnesota, and there is a poor telephone and internet connection and so instead of beating around the bush with something like, “The doctor found papillary thyroid carcinoma,” or, “the test results aren’t exactly awesome,” or even, “They found cancer,” which would imply it was not exactly me, or mine, or inside my body, I had to shout, to be very clear and to make sure he got the message before the internet shut off, “I HAVE CANCER!!!!!” (again, those darn exclamation points).

Anyway. My point is that this international life is hard and beautiful and amazing and sometimes, it really really stinks. Sometimes it means periods of unwanted and un-chosen separation. It means money spent changing plane tickets at the last minute. It means feeling divided. It means lonely grief. Work and team and home on one side of the ocean. Sick wife or worried husband on the other side.

But there are good things, too, about a cancerous life overseas. #learninggratitude #perspective

There are incredible aspects of the life overseas that truly manifest, to my surprise to be honest, during times of pain, grief, confusion, and sorrow…

Click here to read the rest of 6 Good Things about a Cancerous Life Overseas

What Happens Every Time I Write about Sexual Harassment

Quick link: Let’s Talk about Sexual Harassment

I wrote about sexual harassment for A Life Overseas today but I still had more to say. So here is the follow-up piece.

I’ve written about sexual harassment in the past and inevitably, a friend will tell me that they’re surprised by my stories, that they have never been harassed. I immediately whip through a range of internal reactions. One, great! I’m so glad for them. Two, shame. Why me? Three, doubt. I don’t believe them. Four, anger. Why are they saying that to me? Do they not believe? Do they think I’ve “asked” for it in some way? Am I doing something wrong?

Like I said, I’m glad other women don’t experience harassment.

But.

I think there are reasons other than that I’m just asking for it.

  • I speak the local language. It is hard to know someone is insulting you when you don’t know the language. I’ve been called a whore more times than I can count but not one single time has been in English. I’ve been told that I will be the first one someone would choose to kill, but it wasn’t in English, or that my breasts are nice and my butt is jiggling but never in English.
  • I spend a lot of time outside. I run, outside. Most of the time I am encouraged and cheered on by men on the streets. But not always. Not always. I bike, I walk. Apparently, a woman on a bike is cause for boys or men to shout, “Sex! Sex!”
  • I spend time in certain sections of town. I don’t spend time only at the upscale hotels or grocery stores or neighborhoods.
  • I understand the culture. I know the hand and facial gestures, at least some of them. I know the lip and tongue noises. I know some slang, some history. Some words seem benign but they aren’t when you know the backstory.
  • I’ve been living internationally for sixteen years. I’ve been a woman for forty years. I’ve built up a lot of stories.
  • I used to live by several schools. Never again. Things got so bad on one particular street that even my daughter was being harassed: touched, pinched, stopped on her bike, chased, mocked. We spoke to the director of the school, we spoke to our landlord, for a while a police truck patrolled the street. Eventually, we moved.

I know I’m not the only one because I’ve spoken with other women and hugged them and cried with them. I’ve been with them when it has happened, both local and expatriate women. But sometimes it can still feel like I’m the only one, especially when I hear others express that they haven’t experienced these things.

Should I stop biking? Should I drive the car two blocks to pick up a baguette? Should I move into a neighborhood with rents higher than our salary? Should I stop running? Should I wear a cardboard box from head to foot? Should I never speak or laugh when outside? Should I not tell these stories?

Should I, as a few commenters have suggested, pack up my children and leave? But where would I go? Nowhere is safe from harassment, it has happened in every country where I’ve spent significant time. Should I concede, as one commentor suggested, that harassment can’t happen to me because it happens at the American military base? As if the harassment of women in one location cancels out the harassment of women in another?

Should I feel bad that I seem to be one of the few expatriate women to be on the receiving end of harassment?

Should I say, kids will be kids, with the feel of my breast in their palm and the reality that if they actually do trip me while I’m running, I might be seriously injured? Should I pretend like these boys won’t grow up to be men, stronger and faster, with wives and daughters?

Should I pretend I was terrified when a man punched me in the butt, his fast swinging with the force of the motorcycle he rode? Or that I wasn’t disgusted when someone dumped a bottle of liquid on me and for a moment I had to wonder whether or not it was urine or something even worse?

Should I pretend it doesn’t happen here? Didn’t happen in Italy? Didn’t happen in Turkey? Didn’t happen in the United States? Didn’t happen in the UK? Didn’t happen in Kenya?

No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No.

I hope I’m the only person who experiences sexual harassment but I don’t believe that’s true. So I’ll keep talking about and keep hoping it stops and keep hoping other women will be willing to talk about it, even through the shame or anger.

Good Things, the Thirteenth, July 2018

1 Ethiopian coffee at the mall

2 emptying freezers for friends when they leave

3 desert golf date

4 lasagna lunch with friend also launching a child to Uni

5 new books for the school library

6 American cheesecake at a party at the US embassy

7 one whole week, no power cuts

8 still able to run in the heat, still wanting to run in the heat, makes me feel strong

9 gathering memories for a Djibouti basket graduation gift: volcanic rock, shells, salt balls, the nation’s flag, favorite cereal, and more

10 goodbye to Djibouti, for too long, for not long enough

11 senior night, all the memories

12 graduation times two. All the feels.

13 watching musicals on a long haul flight

14 jet lag-fueled sunrise run in garden of the gods, colorado

15 endless supply of Lindt chocolate while debriefing and crying

16 slip-n-slide

17 hike with family and a new writer friend

18 breakfast on the veranda of a real, live castle

19 blueberries, granola, and yogurt for breakfast while talking books with new friends

20 pancake breakfast with old Djibouti friends, away from us for five years, the friendship not changed at all

20b airplane travel without any layovers. Get on, get off, you’re there

21 the farm, the cousins, the grandparents, the aunts and uncles

22 picking raspberries to refuel after my country-road run

23 open house, pulled pork, all the yummy desserts

24 cousins who turned the old barn into a bowling alley

25 25-cent massages from my sweet nieces and my daughter at the farm pop-up spa

26 happy 18, times 2!

27 TCKs from Djibouti and Kyrgyzstan

28 open house and a great cloud of witnesses

29 TCKs from Russia, Djibouti, and Kenya at Valleyfair together

30 axe-throwing double date (it is what it sounds like and it is just as awesome)

31 lemonade stands

15 Things I Want Tell My Graduating Third Culture Kid Seniors

Five years ago I wrote a post, 15 Things I Want to Tell My Third Culture Kids. I’ve been writing my kids letters and telling them things for years. When they return to school every three months, they return with packets of letters. One for each week, usually written on the back of a photograph of people and places they love. I’ve written them verses, prayers, quotes, poems (so much Mary Oliver), song lyrics, and rambling mom-junk. And we talk. So, they know this stuff. But, too bad for them, their mom is a writer and sends some of that mom-junk out to the wide, beautiful world.

I wrote this several weeks ago, a lifetime ago.

You can always come home. Home might not be this house but home is always this family. Come rejoicing, come weeping, come whole, come broken, come lonely, come with packs of friends, come in silence, come and spill it all. This table, meaning the table I’ve set in my heart for our family, always has room.

You can never go back. There is no rewind on life and no redoing spent years. You can’t go back, even if you come back. In You Can’t Go Home Again, Thomas Wolfe wrote, “Make your mistakes, take your chances, look silly, but keep on going. Don’t freeze up.” Keep going. Djibouti will keep going and changing, too. When you meet again, whether this country or the people you have known on the continent, know that you will have to reintroduce yourself and re-explore the other and rediscover who you can be together, or from a distance, now. You might want to go back, you might think things were better or easier or simpler back when…that’s nostalgia. That’s saudade. That’s okay. Those days were good and beautiful and hilarious and I can testify to that. They are part of you now, in your very being, the fabric of what makes you, you. But you can’t live them again. Hold them, honor them, and live into the now and the new.

Guard your heart, your mind, your soul, your body. Be wise, be discerning. Make good choices. Be patient, take your time. Stay in touch with old friends. Don’t sink into social media or the internet or porn or alcohol or consumerism.

But don’t lock it up. Don’t shut the door to keep out what might feel like overwhelming American culture. Don’t be afraid to be tender and loving. Don’t cling so fast to friends far away that you don’t have space for new friends. Be vulnerable, in the appropriate relationships.

Don’t treat Americans with contempt. Even, especially, when they have no clue what a ‘Djibouti’ is. Hear them out, learn their stories, ask inquisitive questions.

Don’t be afraid to be who you are. All that Djibouti awesomeness. All that Kenya awesomeness. All that you awesomeness. You can blend it up however you want, but don’t be ashamed or embarrassed or too proud. Be you.

Be honest about what you don’t know. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or to ask for help. People might think it is strange that you don’t know something they think is normal American life, but most of the time, they will also enjoy helping you and you never know what friendship might come of it. Be humble.

Explore and be curious and savor. Think of your college campus or your new city as though you have just moved abroad, which for all practical purposes, you have. Think of American English as a new language, restaurants as exotic local fare, a trip downtown as an exciting cultural exploration. Try stuff. Try broomball. Try downhill skiing. Try snowball fights. (Don’t try licking the flagpole in January). Try saying “oofdah.”

Seek out a trusted advisor with whom you can be completely transparent and ask for cultural guidance. Here gender and race conversations look different. Here poverty, justice, corruption, wealth, privilege these things look different and are talked about in different ways. It will be hard and you might feel confused sometimes, but try to learn to contextualize your conversations and learn from the people around you. Conversations in America have changed since mom and dad lived there and we can’t be specifically helpful in this regard because we are often confused, too. In this same vein, seek out a counselor, a trained professional, who understands cross-cultural issues.

Find a strong, healthy, joyful, creative, supportive, purposeful spiritual body to be part of. Maybe a church, maybe a campus group, maybe a small group of friends. Explore who you are, spiritually, apart from mom and dad.

Root yourself. You might be tempted to flit around and there will be potentially appropriate times to leave – to transfer or to study abroad – but don’t move just for the sake of movement. Settle in, make a home, even a dorm home, connect with people, invest in your community.

Call home. Text. Facebook message. Send photos. When you do, be honest. Goods and bads. Talk us through it. We’re transitioning, too. We miss you like whale sharks would miss the sea.

I am eternally grateful that we have had the honor of sharing this life abroad with you. Djibouti hasn’t always been easy, but what is easy? No place is easy. The way you love this small, fascinating nation blows my mind. You have embraced it, the heat and the dust, French school and Djiboutian best friends, Papa Noel and Eid Mubarak, volcanoes and ocean, with exuberance. And it has embraced you back. This is a rare thing. Including you, I can count on two hands the number of non-Djiboutian American children who have spent their lives, from toddler-hood to graduation in this country, and you have loved each other well.

You are not alone. You can cross the sea, go to the highest mountain, the lowest volcanic lava tunnel, you are not alone. God is with you, cliché and true. But also, all the people who have loved you and taught you and coached you and prayed for you are with you. You don’t leave friends or family behind, not when they have invested in you. They have become part of who you are, part of your character and your stories. You know this, from the Open Houses that we had/will have. We need to have them on two continents, with letters from people in dozens of other countries, because love and support is coming at you from all corners of the globe.

Live here and now. They might be hard words to live in and I’m still learning how to do this well. Right here, this now. And then this one and then this one. Pay attention to your here and your now and feel it. This actually builds new pathways in your brain. Did you know that? How you choose to receive and embrace each moment matters. Make it good, even the hard ones. Learn from them. Savor the good moments. Laugh when you want to, cry when you want to. Get angry and feel wonder. Here. Now.

Okay and a couple bonus, obligatory things:

I love you. I’m proud of you. Always and forever, to the moon and around to Djibouti and back around again.

What do you want to say to your graduating senior, TCK or not?

Read suggestions on helping TCKs transition to university in Finding Home.

Find more wisdom for graduating TCKs here.