Flying Economy Class

I, like every expatriate who flies thousands of miles a year both domestically and internationally, read the article Paying a Price for 8 Days of Flying in America, in the New York Times on June 9, by Sarah Lyall, about the gross indignities of air travel. 8 days, 12 flights, 1 journalist. All domestic flights.

It was a well written, funny article and I enjoyed reading it.

She seemed a bit whiny. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb here, a lot of people seem a bit whiny about air travel.

Yes, there are indignities involved when traveling and I do think it is ridiculous to see people, myself included, shuffling over filthy airport tiles in bare feet because our flimsy sandals are on a conveyer belt just in case we tucked a weapon between those Old Navy plastic pieces of junk. It is truly awkward to have a stranger give me a groin pat and quick feel under the wire of my bra, in public.

Yes, I wish I could fly while lying on a bed of rose petals, sipping champagne, while a private masseuse rubs violet essential oils into my now germ-ridden feet.

Sure, it would be awesome to have a steak dinner and handmade hot fudge sundae while zooming above the clouds.

We all want to walk on fairy dust and ride unicorns.

We all want to be treated like kings and queens and be first in line and get overhead space for our over-packed roller bags.

We can’t always get what we want.

I get it, air travel is no longer the realm of the exotic and the regal, sometimes it is barely the realm of the dignified. I get it, planes aren’t on time and luggage gets lost.

I have been in a seat with the person behind me wedging their knees into my back so I couldn’t recline. I’ve sat beneath overhead panels that dripped water on me incessantly throughout the flight. I have been in seats with broken entertainment systems on flights lasting more than thirteen hours. I have been delayed so that I missed my connecting international flight which meant a 2-day journey through three continents turned into a 5-day journey, including lost luggage. I have been thirsty and my stomach, dear God, my stomach has growled.

I would not call any of these things suffering.

I didn’t recline. Okay, it made a little crabby but no one died. No one even got cramps. I asked the flight attendant, who was empathetic about the dripping but unable to move me on the full flight, for a napkin and draped it over my lap and shoved another into the crack above me. I read a book and listened to music instead of watching a movie. I, and my two children, turned our epic 5-day trek into a memorable adventure that we now laugh about. I ignored my thirst and didn’t cry because I couldn’t meet my stomach’s needs in this exact instant with organic free-range gluten free paleo something. In other words, I put patience and perspective to work.

Traveling by plane is now for the masses, at least for more of the masses than it used to be. We aren’t treated like kings and queens while traveling and despite what our parents may have told us, we are not all kings and queens.

We pay to get across the country or the globe in a matter of hours and those of us in economy class paid less. So we get less but we still get to our destination. There are many people who have never flown in an airplane. Many people who can’t afford to soar above the earth, duck through clouds, watch lightening from above it, stare down at golden wheat fields and glittering cloverleaf freeway exits, and disembark in a totally new location. Many people never get to feel the surge of power forcing them back into their seat upon takeoff or the drop of their stomach during turbulence.

This is a privilege. Air travel is a privilege.

And, dare I say it, it is a privilege to sit in economy. To know that I have saved hundreds, thousands of dollars, and that I and the person in business class will both get off at the same place but I saved money and, if it is money I actually have, I can donate it to a friend in need, to my child’s college fund, or to a just cause – I find that satisfying. If it is money I don’t have, what have I lost, compared to the person in first class? I have lost ten minutes of time while boarding. I have lost a fancy meal. No problem. I packed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and, again, I’m satisfied.

It is hard for me to justify paying for a seat that reclines to a bed or a monogrammed pillow on a three-hour flight when Syrian refugee families live in less space (more or less). It isn’t so bad, back here in economy. I’m flying. I’m seeing the world. I’m typing this while I sit here in my seat at the back of the plane. Here, where I have electricity, a movie, running water in the toilet, temperature controls, smiling flight attendants who ask if I want Coke, juice, water, coffee, milk? Almonds? Pretzels? Cookies? They only get crabby when we treat them poorly (don’t be an ass to flight attendants, flying tip #1). In other words, this seat has more amenities than the homes of some people I know in Djibouti.

In saying this, I’m not judging the person in Business Class. I have no idea what they do with their money or how they make their choices and I can feel legitimately happy for their comfort, or I can just ignore them and not let envy or judgment ruin the incredible experience of flight and of my own life. I’m simply saying I can find fulfillment in the lifestyle I can afford.

I realize this makes it all sound hopelessly dramatic, to make these kinds of comparison. But by looking up, toward people who have more and who will always have more, only stirs discontent and Americans, myself included, have become far too good at this. Don’t look ahead, don’t look behind. Look at your own self, your own seat, your own life.

Your brown-haired daughter snuggled on your lap, her head so heavy your legs fell asleep sometime over Chicago. Be glad you are sitting so close together, there aren’t many more years before she won’t want to lean on you anymore. Look at your husband, on the other side, his elbow poking into your ribs as he crosses waaay over his share of the arm rest. He keeps choosing you and your life together, over and over, even when you are mean or selfish or try to shove his elbow back over to his own side of the arm rest. Look across the aisle at those teenagers. They are going to college in a year and they are the best thing you have ever made, the best thing you have ever given to the world. Swallow the lump in your throat. That isn’t from turbulence, that is from contentment.

Yup, that can happen. Even back here, in economy class, boarding zone 3, last row of seats. It is enough.

Actually? We are kings and queens.

Strong in the Broken: Facing Infertility Abroad

Today’s Strong in the Broken guest post is by Lori F and it is beautiful in its honesty about grief and infertility in a cross-cultural setting.

When we got married our goal was to work internationally.  We spent the first five years of marriage paying off school loans, pursuing more education and training, and generally equipping ourselves for life in a culture very different than ones we were used to.  We intentionally held off starting a family, wanting to be settled in our new home before starting that kind of adventure.  When the day finally arrived for us to fly to our new home in a closed, ultra-conservative Islamic country in Asia it was the start of a new, exciting chapter in our lives.  Of course, best laid plans and all – we ended up arriving in country on September 11 – yes, that September 11.  But that’s not what this story is about.

Despite multiple evacuations, political instability, constant violence from extremist attacks, kidnapping threats, extreme heat, limited availability of basic utilities, a constant turnover of coworkers, and a closed, completely segregated society we managed to dig in, learn language and thrive in this wondrous new world.  Except we couldn’t get pregnant.

During our first few years I was so overwhelmed trying to learn to communicate and in general functioning like a toddler myself, I didn’t worry too much about our lack of fertility.  But as I grew in understanding of the culture around me I also grew in grief.  In a culture where women rarely leave the confines of their walled compounds, are married off by arrangement, and are prized almost solely for their ability to produce heirs (read male), I stood out.  Daily I was asked why we had no children.  Women would belittle me to my face, recommend second wives for my husband, demand to know what was wrong with me.  In short, on a daily basis I was told I was subnormal, deficient, useless, and worthless.  Men would commiserate with my husband over our lack and suggest he divorce me and find a wife that would fulfill her duties.

And while we truly loved our adopted homeland this daily psychological warfare took a heavy toll on me.  In time we went through all kinds of fertility testing – its own kind of special humiliation – only to find no explanation for our barrenness.  We went through fertility treatments to no avail and then moved on to a multi-year adoption saga that left us defrauded financially, broken emotionally, and still childless.  In the midst of all this sorrow I was still contending with the daily drip, drip, drip of being found wanting as a woman.

There were days where I just needed to shut down, close out the world around me and console myself with the fact that despite everything I had a loving husband who cherished me.  We were together for better or for worse – something my local friends could not cling too.  Women like me, who found themselves unable to conceive within the first one or two years of marriage would quickly find themselves either divorced in disgrace and sent back to their father’s home, or shunted along to become a second or third wife, trapped in a loveless marriage, forever a servant in her own home.

Although my grief over childlessness did not diminish (and never will) I found it to be a key that opened the hearts of women around me.  The culture was inherently hospitable but also extremely stand-offish towards strangers.  Many women assumed that a privileged, ‘wealthy’, white, foreign woman could have no problems.  As I learned to open up and share my grief with them, they reciprocated – pouring out their hearts to me, giving me a glimpse into the darkest parts of their lives – the abuse, the shame, the fear, the hopelessness.  They trusted me with their hurts because they saw mine.  They often asked how they could find a husband like mine who loved me despite what their culture said about my failings.  And while I would not wish infertility on my worst enemy it did bind me to this culture of hurting, hidden women in a way perhaps nothing else could.

A TCK from Venezuela, Lori has spent the last 16 years working in several Asian countries together with her husband.  Along the way she has acquired an aversion to packing suitcases, a fascination with languages, and an abiding love for tea and spicy food.

Prioritizing Family While Living Abroad

Quick link: Fight for Your Family

At A Life Overseas I wrote about putting your family first while living abroad, something you will have to be intentional, and sometimes aggressive, about. Do it.

Humanitarian, governmental, and religious organizations sending people abroad don’t always have the best interest of their internationally-located staff in mind. They think they do. They hope they do. Even (I think) many of them try to. But they are organizations, based back in the United States. They are staffed by people who have no idea of on-the-ground realities or of the nuance of daily life in a specific location. They think about broad vision, finances, promoting their brand, infrastructure, leadership categories, bureaucracy. There are policies in place, sometimes for decades, and no one can remember why they exist but they continue to be followed without criticism.

This can lead to decisions being delivered down from on high, or from back ‘home’, or from some western place, that make little sense to the person working on the ground. Some questionable decision include things like…

Click here to read the rest of Fight for Your Family

Strong in the Broken: In This Tent We Groan

Today’s Strong in the Broken post moves from Tolkein to Lewis, from being a missionary kid to homosexuality to suicide. This essay is brave and it is one man’s story, told with complexity and honesty. It is published without a name, if you wish to contact the author, either please leave a comment or email me and I will put you in touch.

Disclaimer: I understand that this is a sensitive topic, and I cannot claim to have all, or really any of the answers. My hope is to tell my story in an honest way, not as a prescription for anyone going through similar struggles. I do not want to cause dissent or arguments over this issue. This is an uncomfortable topic to be sure, but comfort is no good reason for silence. This topic needs to be talked about until the suicide rate declines among this demographic. It needs to be talked about until this demographic falls in love with Jesus.

Falling in love is a terrible thing. Especially when you are the son of missionaries, and the person you fall in love with is another boy.

I never really had a concept of homosexuality growing up on the mission field. And maybe it wasn’t necessary. I was busy roaming the city streets, climbing on fortress walls, learning languages, running away from security guards. But even at the MK(missionary kid) conferences I think I felt a bit out of place, as if there was something different between me and my peers. I didn’t quite fit in even among my fellow TCKs (third culture kids). I couldn’t put my finger on it then. I just tried to love Jesus and obey him.

The subconscious prayer I tearfully prayed throughout high school and into college was, “God, fix me!”, because even though I didn’t know what needed fixing, I was aware of something broken within me. I noticed other guys instead of girls, but I thought it would pass, that it was nothing, that I was just sinful, that if I prayed hard enough, obeyed God enough, studied the Bible enough, I would become the right person. Somewhere in my head I was searching for a magical concoction that would fix me. I dove into theology and philosophy, trying to be the best Christian I could. I ceased to see God as my loving Father who longs to embrace me, and saw him as a genie with the power to grant my wish that I thought would please him, if only I would follow certain steps. I did all of this for at least seven years without the slightest idea that I was gay.

During my junior year at university, my inner world of acting perfect and believing all the right things finally collapsed on itself from sheer burnout and I admitted to myself that I was gay. They don’t prepare you for being this in the transition seminars. No TCK talk could have prepared me for this sort of identity crisis. This sort of world-shattering reality. Because just as I was trying to get accustomed to being in America, and thoroughly enjoying aspects of this culture, I admitted that I was not who I always told myself I was.

Depression pounded against my skull as my heart beat to the rhythm of my pleas, “God, let me be straight!” Shame told me to isolate myself, and my mind went into shock. I didn’t know how to find my Comforter in the Scriptures, because I had spent years treating it as a how-to manual. So I stopped reading this how-to manual that spoke nothing but condemnation into my predicament. I tried to shut my emotions down to give myself time to think, to pray. But then my eyes would catch that guy in the halls and I would break down.

Terror drove me away from my family, friends, people, and God. I was alone with myself and hated myself. My vending machine of a god was not accepting any currency I had to offer, and I became hopeless. My thoughts vacillated between believing I was an accident and that God could not possibly have meant to create someone like me, and blaming God for doing this to me. My God had failed me, or I had failed God. It didn’t really matter, did it? I hated God and wanted to die.

On my darkest nights my feet took me to the train tracks near campus and there I would stand, waiting for a train to come and take my life away. Exhaustion drove me back to my apartment with a fresh anger against a god I was convinced hated me. “Why can’t you let me die?!”

How can I blame God for this mess? I have been told that He is all-good and loving. I must therefore do what comes most naturally to me and imagine myself to be the leviathan beneath the surface of my heart, writhing my scaly body beneath the waves, hunting frigates. It does something to a man when he believes himself to be a monster. I debated whether my heart was more like Hyde or Frankenstein, because in public I could pull off a fair impression of Jekyll, but alone in my room, Hyde was the unwelcome companion who tried to convince me that Frankenstein was a better monster than I because he embraced his monstrosity and accepted it as who he was and called that identity good instead of hiding behind the false form of a doctor.

And yet, if I had to be a monster, at least I might try to be a useful one. If I were a dragon, at least I could feign an impression of Eustace and help to build a mast instead of razing a dwarven city to the ground in order to become king under the mountain. Of course I would be alone, unable to make the voyage to the edge of the world, but at least I might do a little bit of good instead of wreaking destruction before the eremitic storm clouds reigned over my island.

But the truth has a way of shining a light into the darkness. The first time I was honest about this struggle, my body physically revolted, and my throat tightened as I choked on the words. But a weight was gone. In being vulnerable with people I trusted, I allowed them the opportunity to love the unlovable parts of me, and to see light in a place where I could see only darkness; to see hope where all I comprehended was despair. In that moment, a thought flickered in my mind of a God who might be bigger than my small darkness allowed Him to be. I saw a human reflection of Divine love. No expectations. No if…then statements. No “at least…”. Just “I love you.”

A few months later, J. R. R. Tolkien convinced me to begin reading the Bible again by his words, “…I do not mean that the Gospels tell what is only a fairy story; but I do mean very strongly that they do tell a fairy story; the greatest. Man the storyteller would have to be redeemed in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story.” (Letter to Michael Tolkien).

I prayed that God would let me perceive the Bible as a fairy story, which is probably the strangest and best thing I have ever prayed. I lived and breathed the second and third chapters of Genesis for an entire month. I hadn’t planned to stay that long in the Garden, but the magic and beauty of the love of God kept me anchored there, beginning to break the spell which had bound me for most of my life. Where before I had seen a vindictive God who is bound by natural laws, I now began to see a God whose every action was done out of a deep and passionate love for Adam and Eve. This God seemed foreign to me, and I dared to hope that His love extended to this scared son of Adam. I began to faintly hear the call of a God in pursuit of me “Where are you?” and I was tired of hiding my shame from him.

I hate that what I fight against every day is becoming normalized and accepted (at least in America), for now I have to fight myself internally and the world externally, both vying for my acceptance as they tell me that they are advocating for my happiness. Sometimes they tell me that God would want me to live into this identity, that He made me good and wants my happiness. There are days when the fighting is exhausting, the desire seems inexorable, and I wish I could allow myself to accept it, grasp for it, lean into it. If I am honest, there are days when I want to embrace a lifestyle in which I could love a man and my God with a clear conscience, convinced that I am obeying God. But then I ask myself: Is my God the sort of God who would ask us to surrender all aspects of ourselves to Him? To say ‘no’ to our most deeply felt desires and longings in order to say ‘yes’ to Him?

C. S. Lewis in “Perelandra” makes a profound statement. In the book, the law is referring to one regarding the Fixed Islands, but it is fitting in describing the Biblical prohibitions against acting on homosexuality, “I think He made one law of that kind in order that there might be obedience. In all these other matters what you call obeying Him is but doing what seems good in your own eyes also. Is love content with that? You do them, indeed, because they are His will, but not only because they are His will. Where can you taste the joy of obeying unless He bids you do something for which His bidding is the only reason?” There are many times when I don’t understand why this particular law was prohibited by God. I understand that homosexuality does not accurately reflect His love for his Church–that is mirrored in the marriage of a man and woman. I can see that as beautiful, but I often wonder where that leaves me in the context of the corporate Church.

The brokenness I am walking through is twofold: a broken sexuality and a broken perception of God. But as Tolkien said “The hands of the King are the hands of a healer.” (Ioreth, “The Return of the King”) My thoughts and feelings are painful. Some days I just want the strong hug of another man, emotional intimacy and trust, knowing that my imagination is capable of taking me further, and so I fight to stop there, and long for honest touch and true speech. Other days, the old dream of being a father surfaces, and I think of the names for my offspring that my desires steel from me. I romanticize the closeness of a Godly marriage. It hurts, and so I sit alone in my room and weep and pray to God. Not to be made straight, but to be with him.

The Psalms are a magnanimous comfort on the nights that feel especially long and cold and dark. I don’t understand why I have these desires. I don’t understand why God loves me. But maybe that is alright, as I trust that he loves me in bigger, better, and brighter ways than the darkness inside of me can fathom. And I would rather the darkness not be able to comprehend the light than for the light to stop it’s shining. I want to be okay with pressing into the Love of Christ that a part of me does not find comfortable and cannot understand as good and true. I want with my whole heart to leap into His Love, so that maybe His love could brighten the darkness within me.

The truth is that there are no easy answers; my story is one of tension and living in the margins. But I fight to hope in a God who walks with us through this dark and broken valley. And sometimes that fighting looks more like losing, more like retreating. Fighting what Galadriel in the Lord of the Rings calls “the long defeat.” Paul has a poignant way of describing the way that I see my experiences in his second letter to the Corinthians: “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened–not that we would be found unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up in life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight.” (2 Corinthians 1:1-7)

The author carries an American passport and was raised on British fairy tales while receiving a post-Communist education in the former Byzantine Empire. Some of his favorite pastimes include climbing trees and castle ruins, hiking in the Rocky Mountains, and sipping chai with a good book. His Eastern heart currently explores and seeks God in the Western United States.

At the Margins, a Poem

Quick link: Come to the Margins

At A Life Overseas, I am republishing an essay I wrote for SheLoves Magazine a few years ago.

Come to the margins, to the railroad track where houses were burned down and women are rebuilding with planks of wood, flattened powdered milk cans, and used clothing.

Come to the clinic and listen to the stories of grandmothers, of when they were nomads, of before the city was a city. Hear the heritage of folk tales and history.

Come to the elementary school and tutor the kids who strain to keep up in a language they don’t quite know yet.

Come to the stadium and watch the athletes train, see how their bare feet skim the track, hear how their teammates cheer and congratulate one another. Raise your voice with theirs.

Click here to read the rest of this sort-of-poem post Come to the Margins