Halfway

A. A. Milne wrote a poem called “Halfway Down.” The second verse goes like this:

Halfway up the stairs
Isn’t up
And it isn’t down.
It isn’t in the nursery,
It isn’t in town.
And all sorts of funny thoughts
Run round my head.
It isn’t really
Anywhere!
It’s somewhere else
Instead!

Tonight I find myself on that halfway stair.

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I’m halfway here or there—halfway home or not—halfway staying or going—halfway beginning or ending.

All of my things are packed, either inaccessible in suitcases to be locked in checked baggage, or carefully situated in my carry-on, or safely tucked away in storage bins to await my return. This puts me in a strange position, just for twelve hours or so, of having nothing.

It’s a feeling of rootlessness I know too well and yet am always surprised by—this question of where I live, where I belong. At the moment, it’s easy to pinpoint; I certainly don’t live here anymore, but I certainly don’t live in Rwanda yet.

Sometimes it’s more subtle, not marked by where I’ve settled or not settled but by a quiet awareness inside me. Sometimes it’s the unexpected distaste of filling my office with personal items. Sometimes it’s the reluctance to actually unpack a suitcase, since I’ll probably be packing it again soon. Sometimes it’s a fake smile when I meet a new friend, or a longing glance at a world map on a passing wall.

My halfway stair is clear to see at the moment, dramatically bookended by two very different countries, by an obvious before and after. It’s all too clear that this is the step breaking my life in half—my childhood and my adulthood suddenly splitting away from each other in the scanning of a boarding pass.

But there have been other halfway stairs. Sometimes it feels like my whole life is a halfway stair, frozen between something and something else—I seldom know what. My whole life feels like that moment between a long sigh and a sudden inhale.

Neil Das wrote a “Haiku on Moving—For Friends Newly Moved”:

home’s the skin we live
in, moving its shedding; you
now new and tender

they say you leave your
heart, i say your lungs; it may
take some time to breathe

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How to Say Goodbye

I’ve made a lot of goodbyes in my relatively brief lifetime. Long ones, short ones; temporary ones, permanent ones. Some I saw coming for years, and others appeared out of nowhere, bumps in an unexpected turn in the road.

And I’m facing another one.

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I hate goodbyes—the messy emotions, the awkward eye contact, the lingering guilt of being excited to leave while I’m folded in one last hug. I’ve avoided them, skipped out on them, brushed past them. Lately, though, I’ve been trying to do them properly.

But what makes a proper goodbye?

I’ve heard formulas and read advice—mostly checklists of things you ought to do and say and feel, places you should go, people you must see one last time.

I hate seeing an inherently emotional experience laid out like a to-do list. Goodbyes are deeply personal, painfully beautiful moments in which we pass from one world to another. They are, to me at least, too mystical for the mundanity of mnemonic reminders and check boxes.

It’s not about a formula; I think it’s about balance.

See, I’ve tried wallowing in the impending loss, and I’ve tried waltzing away without looking over my shoulder. Neither leads to satisfying transition. So I’m striving for balance, for an intentional halfway between disregarding my present and fearing my future.

I’m preparing to arrive in Kigali while preparing to leave Arizona, nurturing the anticipating and tending the grief simultaneously. I walk a fine line, noticing all the lasts while envisioning all the firsts.

I wonder if I’ll have a new pet as my dog licks my fingers, and at the moment I envision some vague, furry shape in my future, I realise my absence will be an eternity for this solid furry shape in my present.

I buy seeds to plant my favourite herbs and vegetables in my future garden, and I know I will not see the first flowers and fruits of the baby trees growing now in my present garden.

I hope my unknown host family will like me even while I’m exchanging bad puns and sarcastic banter with the family I’ve always known.

A photo by Kalle Kortelainen. unsplash.com/photos/HnWoAM0bMec

Every day, every moment, I am beginning goodbyes.

Goodbye to my books as I stack them in bins for storage. Goodbye to short shorts as I pack for a more conservative culture. Goodbye to soul-baking desert heat as I look forward to a milder climate.

Goodbye to the sunflowers we picked along the highway and planted in the backyard, and goodbye to the overgrown tomato vine that supplies my breakfast so often. Goodbye to morning cuddles when my mother flops on top of me to wake me up, and goodbye to evening scuffles when my brother tries to correct my faulty karate form.

It’s goodbye to more than that, though. It’s goodbye to effortless communication and innate cultural understanding, to time-proved friendships and subconscious patterns enforced by years of interaction. It’s goodbye to knowing how I fit into the social structure.

It’s goodbye to everything familiar.

Every day, every moment, I am beginning to grieve, to see the world through the lens of an upcoming ending.

Every hug, every wave, every “see you later” might be the last. Every flash of light against familiar walls and rooftops is the sun setting on this part of my life. Every drop of rain as the monsoon season finally wrings itself out is time washing away what I know.

Saying goodbye properly, I think, is not a matter of right or wrong, of checking every correct action off a list before you step onto a plane and into your future. Goodbye isn’t a ritual of words and hugs, a cliché of tears and tissues.

Goodbye is a perspective.

It’s noticing the moments passing and embracing them while you can. It’s acknowledging the apprehension and excitement tangled up inside you as you consider your future and knowing they are both valid, natural, healthy. It’s slowing down for the view you may never see again and still speeding up for the one you’ve never seen before.

It’s knowing that the road always curves, that goodbye is inevitable, and that, whether or not you ever loop back to this stretch, the road beyond the bend holds adventures, joys, sorrows—life.

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I Cried

I cried over a bowl once.

I don’t remember what it looked like, really; I was six or seven, and it was some kind of mixing bowl, but it had been my great-grandmother’s. We were packing to move overseas, a process I understood in terms of its end result. My parents were up late, deciding what to pack, what to put in storage, what to get rid of. You don’t realise how much you own until you have to condense a houseful of belongings into a few airport-ready bins.

I remember yellow kitchen light and open cupboards and the chaos of boxes and kitchenware littering the floor, and my mother holding the bowl and deciding to get rid of it.

And I remember crying.

She told me it was silly to cry, because I hadn’t even known the woman, and it was her grandmother, not mine, and her bowl, not mine, and she told me that sometimes you have to get rid of things, even sentimental things, because you can’t keep everything.

She got rid of the bowl.

I don’t know why that mattered so much to me; all her reasons were right. Maybe it was the stress of the transition catching me unawares, or maybe I was an emotional kid awake after my bedtime. Somehow, though, in the moment, it felt right to cry, to mourn without inhibition what I saw as the loss of something beautiful and meaningful.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/irteza/5922171727/in/photolist-a2jFk6-8bBrX8-rpFgum-JerKp-eeG4gh-4h2Dhw-a4GjY4-bQmwg4-85LaZk-4y3K9S-c18unC-crVFsN-9gNcst-bACWR7-9tSm1t-KAkU-a66E5d-AGc9Wp-5E4k1j-dVhmMD-smwbp-zZDX36-5iXdaD-g671Bo-6twiPY-nCFM-o28GN-a4JUTS-6fmybb-4QzDpG-fYGziu-8cQxVt-dcs1ru-5XCqe8-QRxBz-8cTQ85-7B7ywb-7kCK7-92mokf-7EgqdY-aJtonp-4tAq1X-4rY5Gi-9YvyhF-7uoiHf-soDQG-gh2Gw-Gizvv1-yRciei-5AjEfV

I used to cry a lot, actually, but I don’t so much anymore.

I cried for homesickness after every move, but at some point that stopped. Sometime between moving to the desert and moving into a dorm room, homesickness stopped being a poignant ache and started being a fact of life—like a chronic backache, it’s always present, always painful, but no longer debilitating; it’s so constant I hardly remember what life was like before it.

I cried over deaths of people I hardly knew. I cried in the living room over sad movies and in the back of the classroom over sad books that I hid in my lap and read during lectures. I cried over beautiful music and skinned knees and lost toys.

I cried a lot.

I cried unashamedly.

But somewhere along the lines things changed, and I started to hate crying. I began to develop tricks for avoiding tears—biting my cheek, thinking of something funny, dissociating, counting backward from a hundred, anything that would distract my brain long enough to regain control of myself.

My childhood self saw tears as a beautiful thing—a cleansing, a connection, a genuine expression. My beginning-to-grow-up self lost that perspective. Sometime after that bowl, tears became a weakness instead of a strength, a betrayal instead of an admission. They became something to hide, something to deny, something to avoid.

I cried over a rabbit yesterday.

bunny

She died in my hands, and there was nothing I could do, and somehow, through the panic and the grief, I remembered my mother standing in that yellow kitchen telling me that you can’t keep everything even if you love it. I held the tiny convulsing body and I cried, and in the infinity between fluttering heartbeats, I remembered every other animal I cried for.

I remembered the mouse dead in the mousetrap when I was eight, and the baby bird dead in my hands when I was ten. I remembered one puppy kicking and going still when I was nine and one puppy watching through the fence as we drove away when I was eleven. I remembered a pair of baby quail in a cardboard box and an old mare rearing in a new corral.

And as I cried, uninhibited, unashamed, over the loss of something beautiful, I thought, for the first time in a long time, that maybe tears are a cleansing.

Shelter Dogs, Graduation, and Temporary Love

Sometimes, I adopt a shelter dog for a day. The local animal control allows people to borrow dogs and cats for an afternoon at a time to socialise the animals, get them out of their cages, and, hopefully, encourage people to fall in love with and permanently adopt a needy animal.

My roommate and I have done this twice now. Twice we’ve fallen in love with wriggling bundles of unconditional affection. Twice we’ve seen an animal’s joy at romping on grass and in woods rather than on concrete and in cages. Twice we’ve known our hearts would break at the end of the day when we returned the dogs to the shelter.

We’ve been poor college students living in no-pets-allowed dorms with unstable lifestyles. We would be irresponsible pet owners and eventually have to give them up all over again. Still, every time we take them back to their cages, my heart cracks as I hand the leash over to a shelter employee. There’s an urge, every time, to withdraw a little, not to fall completely in love with an animal I can’t keep. But it’s better when I let myself go, forget the pain coming at the end of the afternoon, and abandon myself to the eager eyes and wagging tail.

And yet we continue to go borrow pets for the day, and I continue to believe it’s worth it—that in the few hours we take them out and show them affection, we do something worthwhile—that despite my heartbreak both the dog and I are better for our few hours of love.

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I find, now, that this principle applies to more than dogs. As I packed four years of my life into boxes and suitcases, as I turned the tassel on my flat cap, hugged close friends goodbye for perhaps the last time, and watched my university disappear out the back window, I felt a familiar shattering under my ribcage.

Like most people, and definitely most TCKs, I hate goodbyes. I hate leaving people I love and places I’ve enshrined in my memories. And when I know an ending is coming, the temptation is always to withdraw a little, not to fall completely in love with people I can’t keep. I want to close myself off, to hide my soul away, protecting myself from the very beginning against the ending.

And yet it’s always better when I let myself go, forget the pain coming at the end of the afternoon, or the semester, or the four years, and abandon myself to the laughter and the tears and the friendships. Somehow, I continue to believe it’s worth it—that in the few hours or days or months we share joys and sorrows, we do something worthwhile.

I believe that we build something beautiful through late night hysteria and midafternoon naps, through heart-to-heart talks over coffee and insignificant jokes over cafeteria food. Most importantly, I believe that something does not have to be permanent to be beautiful—that some friendships are precious in their briefness, that the ephemeral can be as needed and as sacred as the eternal. And I believe that, despite my heartbreak at the end, both my friends and I are better for our few years of love.

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Third Culture Patriotism

“Happy Confused National Identity Day!”

I received this text message from a TCK (third-culture kid) friend on the 4th of July a few years ago. As TCKs, our emotions about national holidays range from patriotism to ambivalence to loathing—often simultaneously.

I find that anything about patriotism triggers a foundational uneasiness that turns my stomach to knots and makes my fingers tremble.

us flag

I’m an American citizen. Hurray for Independence Day! Bring on the fireworks and barbecue! But I didn’t celebrate American Independence Day until junior high, when we moved back to the States; instead, I spent much of my childhood in Panama, celebrating basically the entire month of November. ¡Feliz Día de la Independencia! Bring on parades, pollera dancers, food, and fireworks!

I tear up when I hear a particularly moving rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner. I also tear up for the Panamanian Himno IstmeñoI appreciate all the rights and privileges I have as a U.S. citizen and take pride in the struggles and accomplishments of Americans through the years. Although I don’t have Panamanian citizenship, I also feel a deep sense of sharing in the struggles and accomplishments of the Panamanian people.

panama

And I have it easy; I only have two countries tugging at my heart. I have friends whose identities are a fusion of five or six different countries, and I know there are people out there who claim even more.

Pain rises on this day of patriotism. As I sing the national anthem, I feel that I betray my Panamanian heart. As people around me pledge allegiance to a flag I’ve lived under only half my life, guilt washes over me: I don’t feel national pride. America is nice. So are other countries. Most of the world’s counties celebrate independence; the entire globe is an ever-shifting puzzle of revolutions.

Whereas Americans seem to feel patriotism as a call to support their country, I feel it as a call to disown my identity. Just like the horrifying “Where are you from?”, patriotism asks me to make an impossible choice.

Usually on the 4th of July, I choose to ignore patriotism and focus on the celebration—delicious food and synthetic stars fired into the night sky.

fireworks

This 4th of July, I choose something different: to celebrate. Tonight, as I watch fireworks flare above the Manhattan skyline, I will allow myself to celebrate American freedom.

And in November, though I won’t be in the country to see the parades, I will celebrate Panamanian freedom.

Because freedom is worth celebrating wherever it appears.

To the other TCKs out there: Remember that you’re not alone. There a hundreds, thousands of us feeling this juxtaposition of conflicting emotions, this pressure to choose. Remember that celebrating one home does not mean you’ve renounced the others. You have the incredible opportunity to expand your heart and love so many different cultures, people, and traditions. Celebrate them all. If you feel patriotic, wonderful! But remember, too, that it’s okay to feel neutral, even on Independence Day. You’re unique.

Today, I remind you of this freedom: the freedom to feel as much or as little as you need for as many places as your heart can hold.

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On Packing and Hoarding

University is a magical land of unique perspectives and caffeine-induced superpowers. It’s about learning life skills—important ones, like how to scrub mould out of coffee mugs, write term papers in your sleep, and survive the pasta queue without being trampled. It’s about getting to know yourself—your pet peeves and priorities, your dreams and dreads.

It’s also about packing and unpacking four or six times a year.

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Trust me, my stuff does not fit into one suitcase.

As a TCK, I should possess superhuman packing skills, but the truth is, I’m terrible. I blame apathy and packrat tendencies. So this year, struck by ambition, I began packing early. The first step of packing is throwing everything on the floor so I can see it all and, hopefully, pack in an organised manner. But when I saw my jumbled wannabe-Mount Everest, I realised that I should probably get rid of stuff. So I embarked on the terrifying task of sorting through my belongings.

And I discovered that picking through every item I own is far less frightening than getting rid of anything. A very pretty song begins with the lines,

Did you ever want to be overrun by bandits
To hand over all of your things and start over new?

And, holding up a shirt I forgot I owned, I thought, “Yes!” After several days of sorting, I’ve hollered, “Where did I get so much useless stuff?!” enough times that my suitemates have begun shushing me.

But when I tried actually giving things away, I found that I couldn’t. Never mind that I haven’t worn this shirt ever, or that I hate these shoes, or that nothing in my entire wardrobe matches that skirt. With each item, I thought, But what if I need this someday? What if it comes back into style and I can’t afford to buy a new one? Won’t I wish I had kept it?

No.

That’s the simple answer.

So I began a pile of things to get rid of and, taking advice from a friend, forbade second guessing. Once something landed in the pile, it stayed there. And although I still have more useless stuff than I know what to do with, I’ve begun to free myself from extraneous things and, more importantly, from this fear of getting rid of stuff that, really, I don’t want anyway.

Annie Dillard wrote, “One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it all, play it, lose it all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. …Something more will arise for later, something better.”
writingAnd now, as the year draws to an end and I struggle with suitcase zippers and my dislike for goodbyes, I begin to understand that she wrote about writing—but also about life. This becomes more than a matter of hoarding clothes and knickknacks. It isn’t about those torn jeans I never wear; it’s about engaging in conversations with friends. It’s about embracing even dead week and finals as a rare opportunity to learn. It’s about refusing to hoard my time, emotions, and efforts—because if I don’t give everything I have right now, I never will.

And, paradoxically, I find that I can give everything and not run out. Always, I find a greater capacity to care. To engage. To learn. To be.

So yeah, I’m packing. Cramming stuff in boxes, finding forgotten treasures, asking, “Why do I have so much useless stuff?!”

I’m also giving. Clothes. Jewellery. Bits and bobs.

But also more important things. Time. Energy. Affection.

Because Annie Dillard is right: “Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”
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Dear Third Culture Kid

This week, being finals week, my internal clock is off, and I missed Tuesday. Deepest apologies. As everything else is a little different this week, my blog post is a bit outside my norm. A meeting this week brought me face to face with a fear that I hadn’t even realised I had. This letter is my response.

Dear Third Culture Kid,

I know how you feel—like a pair of old jeans, stretched and pulled, going in and out of style over and over again, distinctive in a subtle way that makes you look like every other pair of jeans and like none of them at the same time, a size that fits some people decently and others not at all but that fits nobody perfectly. I know you feel like you’ve seen every rack in the store. You’ve hung with other jeans, you’ve been tossed onto a stack of shirts, you’ve fallen under the shoe rack; there was that time the sales girl put you back in storage and the time they displayed you on a mannequin. You’ve been in the sales window and on the clearance rack; you’ve been tried on and taken off, selected and rejected, admired and ridiculed, purchased and then returned. I know your price tag has changed a hundred times with the fashions and the economy.

My dear Third Culture Kid, you are not a commodity.

There is a difference—a subtle but a vast and vital difference—between price and value. Value is what you’re worth; price changes with the season. Your value is intrinsic and stable, no matter how the people around you try to write your label.

I know that you’ve been told over and over about how valuable your experiences are, how grateful you should be for the life you’ve lived, how much you have to contribute. I know you’ve been set on a pedestal in your passport country and asked to share the deepest parts of you with strangers; they’ve told you it’s your responsibility to share your most vulnerable feelings with those who will never understand. I know you’ve gotten scholarships for being you and then been asked to justify the money by putting your life on display. I know the guilt of wanting to keep your secrets, the frustration of being misunderstood—again—asked stupid questions—again—and stereotyped—again. You would give anything to understand that slippery word, “home,” and you would sell your soul to never again answer the barbed questions, “Where are you from?” and, “Do you miss it?”

My dear Third Culture Kid, I feel your worn-out, aching longings and the guilt that surfaces when they tell you that you should be grateful instead of anguished.

But you are not a commodity.

In a way, they’re right—your experiences are valuable. Your perspective is unique. The things you have seen, done, and lived give you maturity and ideas that other people cannot imagine. But those experiences are not a commodity. Your perspective cannot be labelled, and your life does not wear a price tag.

You are no more or less valuable than that girl on your wing who’s never left the state, whose whole life is measured in pencilled height marks on the kitchen doorframe—no more or less valuable than the elderly lady who bagged your groceries at the same store she shopped at with her children twenty years ago—no more or less valuable than your international friends whose passports match their language and who you’ve secretly envied your whole life.

Life is valuable. Experience is valuable. Perspective and understanding and secrets and feelings—these are all valuable, whether they span entire continents or a few city blocks. They are valuable beyond the limits of price.

Your perspective—the perspective they hang a price tag from and set in the display window—your perspective is a shadow they can never own, a tiny, precious glimpse into a life they cannot have, because they have different lives, different experiences. Experiences, perspectives—they cannot be collected, purchased and displayed at home in a case; they can only be lived. Everyone thinks someone else’s experience is more exciting, more meaningful, more valuable. It is not.

Yours is not.

You are valuable because you are you. Not because you can teach your roommate a few words in a language that’s foreign to her and home to you. Not because you’ve seen the inside of a national monument that your extended family has to look up in the encyclopaedia. Not because you can make ethnic food or share an unusual opinion on other countries’ foreign policies.

If you never tell your story, you are valuable.

If you never share your homesick longings and your cultural curiosities, you are valuable.

If your perspective stays hidden and your multicultural heart learns to assimilate, you are valuable.

That glass box they put you in, that means nothing. That display window you live in, that is their mistake, not your prison. The pedestals, the sales racks, the stages, the hot seats—they do not bind you and they cannot contain you.

They cannot buy you. They cannot sell you.

You are not a commodity.

My dear Third Culture Kid, if you see a price tag on your life, be sure that you don’t put it there yourself.

I know how you feel—like a pair of old jeans, tried and rejected, stretched and discarded. I know because I, too, have hung in the display window, languished in the storeroom, and lain time and time again on the returns table. Our cuts are different, but our labels are the same.

And just like you, I am not a commodity.

Sincerely,

A Fellow TCK

Broken Things

When my brother’s wrist broke, he looked perfectly fine.

None of us knew it was broken. He played like normal. But he reacted to the slightest jostle. A bump against the counter or an unintentional shove while roughhousing brought an abrupt flood of tears and disproportionate anger. Two weeks later, an x-ray showed the fracture.

When my heart breaks, I look perfectly fine.

Nobody knows I’m broken. I live like normal—I smile, I laugh, I sing. But I react to the slightest jostle. My tears flood on the inside, and my manners ice over to hide the disproportionate rage at whoever inadvertently bumped my wound.

wounded

The sign-in sheet is clearly marked: Name. Class designation. Hometown. Major.

Wait. Go back.

Hometown.

My heart skids to a thudding, trembling stop. I freeze, pencil wavering above the page, forcing slow breaths as black spots swirl before my eyes.

Hometown.

I was born in Michigan’s golden autumn. I lived in four states by the time I was two and spent most of elementary school drenched by Panama’s tropical rainstorms. In junior high, we moved to wide deserts beneath Arizona’s vivid sunsets. After I left for university, my parents moved again.

Hometown.

A word that evokes warm memories and loyalty in others stirs in me only agonised confusion. Usually context gives me the answer. Like a clever student with an unexpected exam, I gauge the circumstances, read between the lines, and choose a response:

“My parents live in Arizona.”

“I was raised in Panama.”

“I was born in Michigan.”

 Hometown.

I can’t guess this one. Panic tastes like acid in my throat.

The girl behind me offers some help: “Where do you live?”

Wherever my pillow is. Right now—my dorm.

My face burns as I scribble the first address that comes to mind and rush away, that break inside me throbbing.

cast

“Time heals all wounds.”

No. Time acclimates us to pain. Time buries scars under layers of new memories. But deep wounds never really close up.

They put a cast on my brother’s wrist. It healed. Now you’d never know it was broken.

There is no cast for my heart.

But maybe, in a tiny, infinitely significant way, those golden autumn leaves balance out the bleeding inside me. The thundering tropical rains and sunset lightning storms over desert mountains—maybe, inexplicably, impossibly, they soothe the ache.