Global Nomads and TCKS- 17: The grief of departure

In this passage from my book Of Many Lands, I recall the grief brought on by my departure from The Netherlands:

 Holland was my land of soggy farm fields, of Van Gogh, of wind­mills thrumping in the wind and frigid winter walks by the sea. It is the place I attended a Victorian house of a school, where I fell off a fat pony three times in an hour, where I read seven Enid Blytons in a week. It is the place I tasted pure freedom, zooming around Wassenaar on my bike, and the place I learned I could play soccer as well as a boy. Holland is the place my mother wore her long, baggy raincoat and translated Dutch at a rug-covered table, and where my father rode to work on his bike. It is where I made a twelve foot gum wrapper chain, and where I ran for student council and lost because I was a girl. It is the place I first tasted the elixir of belonging to a crowd, and it is the site of my first kiss.

When I left Holland at age thirteen I wept all the way in the car to Le Havre. When the grief was finally spent, something in me was broken. It was the kind of fracture that hurts with the sharpest pain the first time around. Holland was my first broken heart.

Did your heart ever break when you left a place? Think of that place and the things you loved doing there. Then remember the feeling of leaving there. Describe both.

Originally posted Wednesday, May 22st, 2013

Global Nomads and TCKS- 16: The sacredness of another language

Alice Kaplan writes about why, despite her long struggle with the language, she loves to speak French:

I go back and forth in my thinking about my second lan­guage. Sometimes I think, it’s only the wealthy students who get French; it’s only an expression of their class privilege. My privilege that I went away to Europe when I was fifteen and the shape of my mouth and the sounds going in and out of my ears weren’t frozen into place yet. An accident of class. Or, I think, why have I confined myself to teach in this second language, this language which will never be as easy as the first one? Why have I chosen to live in not-quite-my-own-language, in exile from myself, for so many years— why have I gone through school with a gag on, do I like not really being able to express myself?

Then something will happen, in the classroom, and I’ll see this French language as essential in its imperfection: the fact that we don’t have as many words is forcing us to say more. The simplicity of our communication moves us, we’re out­side of cliche, free of easy eloquence, some deeper ideas and feelings make it through the mistakes and shine all the more through them.

In French class I feel close, open, willing to risk a language that isn’t the language of everyday life. A sacred language.

 French Lessons: A Memoir

Originally posted Wednesday, May 15th, 2013

Global Nomads and TCKS- 15: The discomfort of re-entry back “home”

In an excerpt from Of Many Lands, I describe my difficulty in finding a place for myself in my passport country:

The first year I am in Washington—I am 14 now—I spend each weekend earn­ing money for a planned summer trip back to Holland. I am determined to go back, even though most of my friends have left. The second year in Washing­ton I spend thinking about Borneo, the place my father has been assigned and for which he leaves half-way into my school year, the place we will move at the end of the year. It is as though I never quite put my feet down in Washing­ton. Washington is a place my family lives in between the REAL places. Finally, when I am in my late twenties, as I discover landscapes I love, dig into a field of work, and forge fast friendships, the U.S. begins to feel less like a movie set.

What is your relationship to your home country? Is it your REAL country? What have you done, or can you do, to make some place your real country? Reflect on this.

Originally posted Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

Global Nomads and TCKS- 14: Americans and Europeans

Czeslaw Milosz on Americans and Europeans (pre 9/11):

I walked the streets of Chicago and Los Angeles as if I were an anthropologist privileged to visit the civilizations of Incas or Aztecs. Americans accepted their society as if it had arisen from the very order of nature; so saturated with it were they that they tended to pity the rest of humanity for having strayed from the norm. If I at least understood that all was not well with me, they did not realize that the opposite disablement affected them: a loss of the sense of history and, therefore, of a sense of the tragic, which is only born of historical experience.

…And woe to those who think that in the twentieth century they can save themselves without taking part in the tragedy, without purifying themselves through historical suffering.

Native Realm

Originally posted Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

LIFE NOTES New Garb for Bad Luck: A Pair of Wellies


The other day I was half-listening to Woman’s Hour on the BBC when I heard a caller say, “In your late forties your luck runs out.”  The words rang out clear and cool as a spring breeze.  Whoever said them, uttered them as though they were the simple truth.  And, instantly, I found myself washed through with relief.  Immediately, I had a sense of being forgiven, of being handed a free pass.  All the difficulties, all the unforeseen storms that had blown my way as I neared fifty were, perhaps, not my fault, not preventable: just how life is.  Part of life’s weather.

I remember a therapist saying to me one time, “Around fifty people start to come up against stuff.  They get sick.  Things happen.” I was in my mid-forties then and this didn’t ring any bells.  I thought she was being needlessly negative.  But then things did start to happen as I closed on fifty, and things continued to happen after the half-century mark too.  Not all the time or anything, but big, noticeable things I couldn’t sweep under the rug: My father was struck with a galloping version of Parkinsons, my mother’s heart problems stepped up, my family of origin seemed to come up with new forms of psychological torment every month, and, at fifty, almost right on the dot, I was diagnosed with cancer. I was tossed a bit of luck in that it was found early, but it wasn’t nothing. It’s like, at around fifty, some sort of sell-by date has been hit.

Much as it might sound like it, I actually don’t feel grim about this. Certainly, these things that happened to me, and that happen to many around this time, aren’t happy things, but it is a relief to think of “things happening” as normal, developmental, just how it is—rather than “things happening” as being a moral failure.  In America, in this country where we are supposed to prevent all hardships through eternal optimism, where we “create our luck,” where being unflappable in the face of any disaster is the mark of a person worth feeding, it is a relief to think that maybe, just maybe, we aren’t responsible for the rough weather that comes our way.  We don’t have to deny the trouble that shows up, pretend it didn’t occur, just to prove how strong we are.  Rather, my BBC friend makes me think, there’s another, better way: We can say, “Yep, around the half-century mark, tough stuff does happen along.  It’s no one’s fault.”  Our job is to face into whatever variety of wind it is—dust devil, tornado, or gale, wail and rail as we need to, bear it as bravely as we have in us, but mainly just contend with the lousy weather and muddle through as best we can.  Rather than being humiliated or shamed or condemned for bad luck (“Surely you did something to cause this,” carps that nasty, so-robust inner critic) perhaps we can be straight-forward about it and also treat ourselves to a little compassion.  Just announce to ourselves, “Okay boys and girls! Time to put on the Sou’wester and Wellies and go down to the wreck.”

Originally posted Wednesday, April 30th, 2013