I was trying to explain my idea for this post to Terence: “it’s like, I now see the positive side of being on the margins of all kinds of different experiences.” He laughed. “Nothing like a year in Israel/Palestine to raise one’s appreciation for interesting alienation.”
Interesting alienation. That could be the motto of our family’s year abroad yet in ways I never would have expected, it’s still resonating in my life even now that we have been home six months. I mean something wider and bigger than the culture shock that hit me hard last summer, when I was stunned by how clean, efficient, cheap, easy and clueless my native land seemed after our year in the Holy Land. Even though I haven’t been on an airplane since our epic trip home in July, I feel like I’ve been traveling to all kinds of foreign lands. Just like last year, I seem to find myself constantly on the edges of new communities and subcultures. Why is this happening? Partly because of my no-longer-new job, which takes me inside all different kinds of educational programs. One day I’ll be attending a conference for professors and post-docs in the hard sciences. The next day I’ll be thinking about how first graders learn to read. There’s also the difference between where I live — one of the most well-resourced private schools in the country — and the high-need public schools where much of my work is focused. To cap off the educational dislocation, I’m taking a class (thank you, educational benefits for university staff!) in which all the other students are undergrads. I’m double their age. I’m learning a lot, about far more than the syllabus.
True, this is a different kind of diversity and conflict from what I saw last year. There is no Qalandia here. But I still often have the feeling, even about different parts of the US educational system, “wow, these people really don’t understand each other’s worlds.” And I also have the familiar feeling, “I have no idea what’s going on here.” Literally and figuratively, I don’t speak all these languages. And while sometimes that stresses me out, more often my reaction is gratitude that I get to peek inside all of these worlds, even if none of them are mine.
Another reason I’m “traveling” is because of my kids. Hannah seems to take after me in wanting a foot in every world, even at the cost of belonging nowhere, so she’s started Girl Scouts, swim team and the school musical — all subcultures, all both scary and fascinating (to both of us). Walking into the Cookie KickOff or my first Delaware swim meet felt like happening upon the Nabi Musa parade this time last year. Strange costumes. Intense emotion I didn’t fully share. Massive crowds. People and rituals I never knew existed. The same sense of watching from the sidelines, curious, confused, unknown.
Am I stretching my metaphor? Maybe. I can hear a voice in my head and maybe in yours too: ‘kids’ activities in a suburban town are NOT the same as major religious and cultural events in the Middle East!” And don’t get me wrong. I miss the real kind of traveling more than I can say. A friend’s recent Facebook photo of an airplane wing above the clouds made me burst into tears. We’re working hard to figure out a way to get out of the country again. But I’m surprised at how sabbatical seems to have stretched and changed me. I am way more tolerant of my own cluelessness and awkwardness. I care less what others think of me. It’s more important to see new stuff, do new stuff, learn new stuff, than….well, than almost anything.
I never expected this kind of mental divergence as I approach middle age. Somehow, I thought your 30s were all about mastery, roots. It’s like I’m living life backwards. I used to be so focused. I tried to declare my major the first month of freshman year, though in true liberal arts fashion they wouldn’t let me. In the heat of last year, I would sometimes think defensively: “this isn’t my field!” “This,” meaning international relations, or Biblical texts, or Middle East history, or all the many stories writ in Jerusalem stone I didn’t know how to read. But on the other side of the experience, I feel so much bolder, like there’s almost no topic I couldn’t tackle — or at least enjoy being confused and intrigued by.