Strike while the iron is hot

Oldie but goodie: we're going places!

Oldie but goodie: we’re going places!

One year at a time. That’s as far as I can plan. People always expect me to have a five year plan but I never do. I tell myself this is all about staying open to opportunities and responding to the needs of my family, but maybe deep down I’m a flake. Either way, one way that I cut the pressure of culture shock and re-entry last summer was to say, “I only have to figure it out for one year.” “It” meant different balancing acts depending on the day. How to keep our sense of discovery while we returned back to the daily grind. How to search out diversity in a fairly homogeneous, suburban environment. How to stay informed about world events and keep our kids aware too. How to remember, now that we’re back in our comfort zones, how it felt to be so far outside them, and to empathize with those who are new, alienated, alone. How to live responsible, rooted lives and still yield to our itchy traveling feet.

I still don’t know how to do this long term, but we have figured it out for this year. Terence will be going to Turkey for three weeks on an NEH grant, and the rest of us (grandparents, kids, aunt, and me) will be joining him afterwards in Slovenia, Croatia and (some of the adults, not the kids) Bosnia. Goosebumps. Our plan worked. As my father, my mentor in the ways of risk taking, told me: “you have to strike while the iron is hot.”

No sooner was the goal in sight than I did what I always do: pre-emptively freak out and doubt myself. “Is it worth it?” I moaned. Worth the money, stress, planning, the weeks I will be a single parent?

Last year, the same niggling question would sometimes cross my mind. Was that place worth the bus fare or the motion sickness or the sunburn to see? Was that hummus worth $10? Was the life experience we were gaining worth all the tantrums and exhaustion? Was a sabbatical for one of us worth a job sacrifice for the other?

These questions can drive you crazy and take all the fun out of the adventure. Now that I am on the other side, the answer is an unequivocal yes, yes about all of it. It was all worth it. And hard as it is for me to quell the pre-emptive freak outs, I want to trust that it will all be worth it again. I guess it comes down to deciding that international travel is a value for me, something I want to do no matter what. And of course I realize the privilege and the luck involved in a sentence like that. I will take it one year at a time.

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Background Knowledge

 

Shortly before getting separated

Shortly before getting separated

Last weekend, I was driving a carpool and the conversation turned to the topic that strikes fear into the hearts of all parents: losing your kids. Hannah’s friend regaled me with a story of getting separated from her family at a minor league baseball game. Then she wanted to know whether Hannah and Margaret had ever been lost. 

What I thought to myself was: Yes. Hannah wandered away from us in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on December 23 and was rescued by one of hundreds of tour guides. Margaret turned one way and the rest of us turned the other as we walked out of church in the Old City on Easter Sunday. Our joyous reunion was witnessed by throngs of joyous pilgrims.

What I said to the friends was: yes, they both got lost last year, in places that were crowded with lots of people, just like a baseball game. And we were so happy when we found each other again.

When my kids remember these experiences, will the setting figure into their memories at all? They got lost where Christians believe Jesus was born, and where he was crucified and rose again. But probably all they will remember is the fear of being lost, the relief of being found. That is the important part. Keeping the setting in mind — the uniqueness, the wonder of what we saw and did last year — requires constant narratives from us. And I will tell those stories, just like my father tells how he carried me in a baby backpack up to the top of Mont St. Michel on my first birthday, in the fog.

But I am also a little torn. Why did I not tell the girls’ friends all the details of the story? When I went back to Brittany as a teenager, why did I not tell the other kids on my trip I had seen that abbey rising from the sea before? I guess something in me is a little self conscious at the richness of the world I have been able to experience, and my children have to. “She has a lot of background knowledge!” observed one of Hannah’s new teachers this fall. Indeed.  And for that I am grateful, and I try to get Hannah to be grateful too. I know how lucky we are. I also know that what really matters is the life you are living, not where it happens to happen.

 

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Still traveling

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.

Brave New World: cookie sales

Brave New World: cookie sales

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.

 

 

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A new year

A year to the day ago, Hannah, Margaret and I visited their amazing school in Jerusalem for the first time. Later that afternoon, we experienced the city sliding into the peace of shabbat, and we waited for Terence  to arrive so we could officially kick off our family’s sabbatical, the “year on” which we would collectively squeeze for every drop of experience and adventure.

This week Hannah headed back to school, starting first grade, in a uniform, on a yellow school bus. The highlight of the first day seems to have been the cafeteria (“you get a tray! and strawberry milk!”). It’s a Real American public school experience. Most of the time Hannah is focused on fitting in with all the other kids but sometimes she cracks, and we see glimmers of the unusual, the residue of her year on. At a juggling show the other night, the performer wanted to know who could count to 10 in a language not English. He expected Spanish, perhaps, but not Hebrew and Arabic.

This week, Terence also heads back to school. It’s a crashing wave of commitments that basically won’t end until June, a job so rigorous that it justifies the extraordinarily generous vacations and sabbaticals. And after Labor Day, Margaret and I will complete the quartet, starting a new pre-K  and a new job, respectively. We’re trying to plan ahead, to figure out how we can switch gears from 0.0 to 1.8 FTEs in our family, and learn the ropes of three new organizations. We’re all excited but understandably wary. And cultural adjustment is still going on in the background of every experience, every encounter, making us susceptible to sudden exhaustion or overwhelm or nostalgia for all we have done and seen and felt.

It’s an emotional roller coaster. I have moments of feeling like all our adventures are over, everything interesting about us has vanished. No one looking at us now would imagine we saw the sun set over the Monastery in Petra, or accidentally stumbled on the Holy Week festival in Nabi Musa, or raced to the Old City one Friday after dinner to usher in Shabbat, and paid a quick visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on our way home. I find myself doing something so predictable: romanticizing and exoticizing our experiences abroad, which were often very quotidian, as this blog can attest. For every peak moment, there were at least five supermarket freakouts. And mostly I was confused.

At other times it feels good to be home, to be operating in a situation in which (even accounting for cultural confusion) we more often know what the heck is going on. It was a huge relief to discover that people had not forgotten me, personally or professionally, and to be able to wrap up a job hunt with only a touch of stress. And our little home state is charming us. Totally the opposite of Jerusalem, this place has never been on the front pages. But yesterday we went to the Olde Tyme Peach Festival and saw almost all our elected officials in the parade (along with marching bands, cheerleaders, beauty queens, antique tractors and representatives of many, many  churches. I reminded the kids of the Lag B’Omer fair we went to in May — different religion, same outreach strategy, down to the bouncy castles). And then last night Terence and I went out to the movies and saw our senior senator for the second time in the same day. It’s all so coherent and peaceful and effective. Again, unlike the Holy Land.

I’ve been debating whether to end this blog officially, or just let you know I’m not sure how many and what kind of stories I will be telling from here out. I’m not good at endings and I don’t know what the future will hold. Do I officially close out our “year on”? Rename and relaunch a new blog? I feel like almost every entry this year ended with some version of this sentiment: I’m not sure what I think. And I suppose this one is no different.

 

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Travel and privilege

 

Lucky ducks

Hannah is missing six teeth, and likes to recount to anyone who will listen:

I lost this one on the Mass Pike and this one in Jordan and this one in Jerusalem and this one in Italy and this one in Massachusetts…and only one in Delaware!

Family and close friends laugh at this routine, but I can never tell what others are thinking: 

…that spoiled kid!
I’m jealous.
Where are those places, anyway?
Would you hurry up and grow some big-kid teeth, please?

I’m starting to feel a little awkward about advertising all the places we have been. Our year on was a ridiculous privilege, and I hope I’ve always named it as such. It required two financial sponsors, as well as family savings, and the security of knowing that we had shelter and at least one job waiting on the other end. We had previous travel and expatriate experience; on my side of the family, my daughters are in the fourth consecutive generation to live abroad as a child or adolescent. Terence had been to Israel twice and studied and taught about the region (though I was flying blind). We had family support, educational attainment, good health, local contacts, every advantage you could wish for except Hebrew or Arabic language skills.

Itemizing all this, I see how truly fortunate we were, and are still. And yet, and yet. It bums me out that international travel is such a luxury. I can’t tell whether it’s an actual or just perceived luxury. I mean, plenty of Americans believe they can’t afford to go overseas, but drop thousands on a trip to Disney World. Here perhaps it’s a question of priorities. My kids are advocating for a trip to Disney, but it’s not in the cards right now. (This year taught me a lot about budgeting and values). 

I wish more kids could travel overseas, even if that meant fewer saw Epcot. What will it take to make that happen?

Global awareness. Cross cultural competency. Twenty first century skills. These are such buzzwords in American education, and schools aim after these concepts in various ways. Educators fret over the OECD data, showing American students as at best average among our global peers. Our home state has just started a world language immersion program, which starts kids on Mandarin and Spanish as early as kindergarten, and imports instructors from China and Spain. Other schools here look abroad for curricular models, like ‘Singapore math.’ Independent schools enroll more and more international students. Friends hosted an exchange student for a semester.

All of this benefits American students and helps them understand the world and appreciate other cultures. But there’s no substitute for getting on a plane and experiencing it, and I wish more resources could be directed at that. Of course there are school exchange programs and similar opportunities, but other countries seem to have figured this out better. When we were passing through airport after airport en route home, we kept bumping into huge groups of school kids on summer trips. None of them were American. Almost all of my friends from London took “gap years” before university. I think only one of my American friends did that. Of course, it’s easier and cheaper to go abroad with Europe as your starting point. But I’ve met tons of Australians and New Zealanders while traveling, so it’s definitely possible to do it from anywhere.

This past year re-ignited my passion for international travel and turned it from a “nice to have” to a “non-negotiable” for me, and for my family. Yes, we have plenty of privilege. But that doesn’t mean it will be easy to incorporate international trips into our lives. It will limit other options and expenditures and shape our professional choices. But we will make it happen. We need to go abroad in 2013 to make the habit stick; otherwise this ‘year on’ could turn into a lovely memory, a cool thing we once did. And in addition to bringing my own kids abroad, I want to give some thought to how to extend these travel opportunities to more kids in more schools.

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Global parenting

I made a very “American parent” mistake the other day. Hannah was invited to a new student pizza party at her new school. All morning, I dreamt of pizza. We’ve been trying to eat really healthily and I was excited for some grease.  It didn’t even occur to me that this event might be “drop off” — that well-meaning parents like me would be cheerfully but forcefully blocked at the door, with instructions to return at 1 p.m.

I blushed and had leftover salad for lunch. I don’t consider myself a helicopter parent, but I might be a big, big kite.

I doubt any Israeli parent would ever make a miscalculation like that.

 

This is a phenomenon I saw many times in Jerusalem, that I doubt I’d ever see in New York or any US city. A woman gets on a crowded Egged bus via the back door because she’s laden with a baby in a stroller, plus potentially other children and bags. Before fighting the crowd up to the conductor to pay, she deposits her infant with a complete stranger for safe holding. It was one of my best moments in Jerusalem when I was the chosen one, and got to cuddle a tiny Israeli infant for several bumpy bus stops.

One of the things I loved about our year abroad was watching and learning from parents of other nationalities. That’s plural, because I saw Israeli and Palestinian family styles, and actually the folks with whom I interacted most were the parents of Hannah and Margaret’s friends. Between them they must have represented 15 or more countries from Europe, Asia, Australia, North and South America. So there was a lot of range.

I’m not sure how I feel about the recent surge of international parenting books — Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Bringing Up Bebe, and so on. On the one hand, the more Americans can learn from other countries, the better. I’ve read both of these books and other similar articles, and they make me think about how parenting decisions and styles are conditioned by national identity (and other identities: ethnic, class, educational…). But the books also irk me because they oversimplify the situation, painting both American and foreign parents with too broad a brush, and they capitalize on women’s insecurity about ourselves as parents.

Our experience of parenthood in Jerusalem was so polyglot. Perhaps that’s for the best. I didn’t emerge with a strong sense of us vs. them in the parenting stakes (a question on my mind all year: who is ‘them’?). It was more like a grab bag of techniques I’d like to emulate. I long for the kind of casual collectivity I saw on our local playground, where big groups formed and it wasn’t always easy to match the parents with their own children. Whether for economic, religious or other reasons, people in our neighborhood seemed to make more time for their families than I see at home. I was also spending way more time than ever before just hanging out with Hannah and Margaret, and finding new value in it. Yet paradoxically I also admired the way other parents gave their kids more leeway and autonomy than American parents (at least parents of my background and inclination) tend to. There wasn’t a lot of micromanaging. All but one of Hannah’s friends was ‘dropped off’ at her birthday party; the parent who stayed was, you guessed it, American.

These scattered impressions will never form a bestseller. I’m unable to generalize about who does what and why. Yet in parenting, as in everything else, living abroad constantly confronts you with how many ways there are to do it, whether “it” is big (set boundaries for a child, teach about values and ethics, develop systems of support and childcare) or small (choose snacks, style toddler hair, handle a potty emergency at the park).

Some of these ways would work for me and my kids; some of them don’t. But you can’t possibly live for a while surrounded by another culture (much less numerous other cultures) and believe you have it all figured out. International travel is a great cure for parenting self-righteousness. On the other hand, it’s also a confidence booster. If I can get my kids across the Allenby Bridge, how hard can it be to make it to school on time? (In another week, we’ll find out).

When Terence and I were neurotic new parents, we quizzed our pediatrician with a gazillion questions including many about what I could or couldn’t eat while breastfeeding: spices? strong flavors? He grinned at us and said, “well, babies do live in Indonesia.” Precisely.

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Home

Last Friday, with both kids in summer camp, I wandered around our house and the surrounding fields, documenting its many beauties. I’m trying to notice things at home the way I eventually began to do in Jerusalem, to slow down and freeze the frame. I remember driving up our steep driveway in a U-Haul for the first time seven years ago, thinking: Wow. I get to live here? 

And this pond is across the field behind our house.

 

 

 

 

Hmmmmm…a pile of rocks in the desert-like sand. This looks like something from Israel or Jordan but I found it on a point overlooking the pond. I found myself wondering: what civilization put it here? Bored five year old boy?

 

 

Above one of our windows, there’s even a line-up of barn swallows, reminding me of another bird in our window in Jerusalem.

 

 

 

As I continue to struggle over what learned this year, and what exactly I’m bringing home, I’m looking for the little things.

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