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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

Gifts for Third Culture Kids, 2018

This site has hilarious gifts for TCKs. T-shirts that say, “Where am I from again?” or “Invisible Immigrant” or “Yes, I speak African. If by ‘African’ you mean one of the 1,500-2,000 languages spoken on the African continent.”

Uncommon Goods has beautiful, fun things, especially search ‘travel’. (I make no commission, just love the site!) I especially love these coloring coffee mugs.

Color Map Mugs

This sticker, from Etsy. “Where am I from? It’s complicated.” Only $3.00

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A world map and push pins. The push pins are for them to mark places they’ve traveled or where people they love live. Or, this map has a scratch off-able cover, so they can scratch off the places they’ve been.

10 Days in Africa game. My kids love this game and of course we made our own pieces to include the countries (ahem, Djibouti) that aren’t included. It has helped our relatives, in particular, to learn geography and gives the kids a chance to talk about the places they’ve been.

Another game, geography of Africa and the Middle East.

Ticket to Ride has an Africa map version but the cover is deeply problematic. Check out these other games instead.

Magnetic poetry, this links to a French version. This is a great way for kids to engage with their new language or to remember and use their old one, if they are no longer in their host country (ala university students)

Food. Always, food. Passport country food, host country food, food you make for them, food you ask them to make in order to celebrate and honor their upbringing…food.

Books

Finding Home, by yours truly.

Between Worlds, by Marilyn Gardner

The Global Nomad’s Guide to University Transition, by Tina Quick

Misunderstood, by Tanya Crossman

Home, James by Emily Steele

 

*contains affiliate links

*For more ideas, check out the list from 2017

The Expat at Rest

I recently started seeing a counselor.

Not for anything specific, really. But for fifteen years in the Horn of Africa. For gritting my teeth and bearing it all these years. For current challenges, for good/hard things, for traumatic events, for heaps upon heaps of sorrow over all the ways the world and her people are broken.

I came in rather skeptical. Not about the particular person I am seeing, and I told her this before we even started, but about the process.

I had all kinds of excuses for why it wouldn’t be helpful.

I waited too long. The years have been too many.

I don’t really need to process any of this, I’ve been fine, I am fine, I’ll be fine. Mostly. Except when I’m not.

No one in the US will understand.

I don’t have the energy to dig around deep.

The specific method won’t be useful for me.

Mostly, I live a beautiful life and I’m thankful for 15 years in the Horn.

I remain skeptical, I think its partly my nature. However. One shining moment (among others) encourages me to press forward.

She gave me a coupon.

Not really, not a paper coupon, but with her words (I think I remember accurately) she even said, COUPON.

It was for rest.

It felt really silly, cliché, gimmicky.

She told me to stop feeling guilty for needing to rest. Of course I need to do work, I still have responsibilities and job requirements to fulfill, but I can easily take an 8-hour work day (on things for the International School of Djibouti, for example, or transcribing and editing an essay) and keep on going into the night. She lightly suggested that the world would not fall apart if I took a nap on a Saturday afternoon.

***

And so, I found myself at a park on a Saturday afternoon.

I had dropped off my son at university that morning and had a few open hours. I sat down at a picnic table with my laptop. I have several rough drafts of projects that needed editing, activity flyers to design, school documents to create.

I was so tired.

I had dropped off my daughter at university only a few days earlier. My husband and other daughter are back in Africa, while I stay in the US as the twins transition to this foreign country of the US. In many ways, life has turned upside down.

I was so tired.

My computer was warm on my lap and ready for work.

But I was at a park. In Minnesota. In late August.

Behind me, a father and daughter hit softballs and the sharp twang of her bat against the ball spoke everything that is summer. Ants crawled over my sandals. The sun filtered through leaves and danced on the grass like drops of gold.

I was so tired.

All I wanted to do was curl up in the grass and fall asleep.

Just for a little while.

Can people do that here?

Would I be safe?

Would someone approach me? Touch me? Stare at me? Steal from me? Harass me? Kick me out?

I closed my computer and sat down in that green, green grass.

I laid back with the sun now dancing on my cheeks and my backpack a computer-shaped pillow behind my head.

I fell asleep.

Did you feel the world stop? Did anyone notice?

Not a thing.

Not even the father and daughter playing softball noticed.

I dozed for maybe twenty minutes.

And then I woke up.

And the world kept right on spinning. You kept right on living. My work was still there and I had plenty of time to get it done.

So, if you need it, super dorky cheesey and cliché as it is, here’s your coupon. No, I take that back. I know you need it. So when, not if, here’s your coupon.

Print it out. Stick it to the fridge. And when you need to sleep in the grass, or sit at a café and just stare at your lovely cappuccino foam, pull it down and go do it.

I’ll still be here when you get back. The sun will still be shining. Your work will still be waiting.

And you’ll have energy to approach it, a fresh spirit to engage with it, new joy to experience it.

Go and rest.

By |September 24th, 2018|Categories: Expat Thoughts|Tags: , , |1 Comment

New Expats, Old Expats, Hold On to What You Believe

Quick link: Don’t Forget the Things You Know Are True

In case you missed it, A Life Overseas published my post this week about some of the things we know are true that are deeply challenged in the first year abroad. And in every year after that.

All the training, preparing, packing, and planning has left you utterly exhausted, unprepared for reality, insufficiently packed, and carrying plans that will be chucked out the window upon arrival. Those who sent you and those you received you have done their best, but they haven’t been perfect or complete, and I want to remind you of some important things.

There are some things you know to be true. These things will be challenged to their very deepest core in your first few months abroad. You’ll forget them. You’ll call people liars (even if just in your head) when they remind you of them. You’ll wonder how you ever could have been foolish enough to believe them. That’s part of the process. That does not change the fact that these things are things you know. They are true. They have not changed, even while life is only wild, chaotic, and stressful.

Read the rest of Don’t Forget the Things You Know Are True here.

Expatriates and the Comparison Trap

Quick link: The Expatriate Balance Sheet

At A Life Overseas today, writing about comparison and envy and the grass that’s always greener.

A friend visited me once, coming from a country further east. She brought boxed blueberry muffin mix, Cheerios, and other American brand name goodies. I thought, ‘oh, her life must be wonderful and easy.’ When she left, she packed a few cans of Dr. Pepper and bags of Doritos and thought, with such luxuries at my fingertips, ‘Rachel’s life must be so easy.’

I also read Under the Tuscan Sun, or From Paris to the Moon and I think, well of course they love being an expatriate. They live in Paris. They live in Tuscany. For crying out loud. What are they whining about?! This makes me feel both proud, look where I’ve lived! And sad, look at where I could have lived!

Expatriates easily succumb to this lie that the grass is always greener. This is especially true when there is no grass, like where I live. If you have grass, even dead grass, I guarantee you it is greener than my grass. That small truth aside, believing the euphemistic meaning of the phrase is dangerously easy.

*image via Wikimedia