Posts Tagged ‘moving to America’

I caught myself red-handed earlier this week. It was somewhere between the excessive consumption of ginger cookies and the laundry. I actually caught myself hoping that Christmas would be “perfect.”

Catching myself shooting for perfection is a wake-up call for me these days, so I set my expectations on to mull with the cider.  The word that eventually bubbled up was “character”; I want a Christmas with character.

In Anne Lamott’s book on writing, Bird by Bird, she says about characters in our writing, “Now, a person’s faults are largely what make him or her likeable.” (p.50)  I think that is true not just for people, but for homes and events and relationships. Of course, we spoil our appreciation of all that lovable imperfection when we demand flawlessness.

At first, thinking about a Christmas with “character” started me down another road of unrealistic expectations. Does creating character require, for example, bungee jumping in Santa suits? How creative do I need to be to make Christmas character-filled?

At that point, another take on “character” came to me. Each Christmas has its own character. I do have a role in shaping that, but I am not the supreme being that makes Christmas what I want it to be. In fact, I enjoy Christmas most when I step back and allow it to take on the shape that it wants, the character that comes alive in part from what each family member and friend brings to it, and in part from what is beyond the control of any of us. But in the end, as a child is more than just parts of dad and parts of mom, a special time like Christmas seems to have an individual breath and life that is more than just what we put into it. And just like with a child, trying to control Christmas doesn’t go so well; it causes me to miss out on watching and enjoying what it is becoming in its own right.

So I’m remembering the characters of past Christmases. The year that Christmas was during Ramadan, and we were trying to juggle being part of Bahraini culture with celebrating our own traditions. The year that someone put curry in the turkey gravy. The year that I freaked out in the grocery store on Christmas Eve because there were shiny Christmas decorations dangling over the ladies covered in black, and the speakers were literally blasting out “Feliz Navidad,” while the guys behind the meat counter sported red Santa hats. The year a whole gang of us had a sleepover at a friend’s house on Christmas Eve and opened our stockings together the next morning. Every year, singing “Silent Night” holding lit candles with a room full of Christians and Muslims who loved us and wanted to share our holiday with us.

This year, Christmas’s character is both happy and sad for us, and I appreciate both. I am grateful for the sadness because I have special friends and beautiful memories in Bahrain to miss. And I am savoring the incredible sweetness of being with family in America for Christmas. Feeling one allows me to feel the other more fully, and vice versa. And I am trying to sit back and enjoy experiencing this Christmas for what it is.

I’d love for you to share about the character of your Christmas in the comments.

Happy Holidays to all of you!


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Every year, halfway through the month of Ramadan (the Muslim month of fasting), kids in the Arabian Gulf dress up in traditional clothes and go around the neighborhood from house to house collecting candy, nuts, money, and chips from the neighbors. In the more cohesive communities, families and groups have tables with sweets and drinks set out, strings of colored twinkle lights decorate the neighborhood, and music plays in the streets.

Girgaoun was one of my favorite cultural activities in Bahrain. In recent years, we spent Girgaoun across the main street from our house in the village near us.  Our side of the street was a newer neighborhood with a mix of families from different backgrounds and different areas, even a few different nationalities, whereas the village nearby had been around for years, with families living and dying together and marrying each other and all knowing everything about each other. It has a typical small-town feel, but it was right across the street from a suburb-style neighborhood.

Now, the complication of Girgaoun is that, within our small country of Bahrain, it can actually be celebrated on three different nights. It all has to do with the clerics sighting the moon at certain times, and of course there are politics involved, so often Sunnis celebrate on one night, Shi’a who follow one cleric celebrate the next night, and other Shi’a celebrate a third night. Sometimes members of a single family have different religious allegiances, so a wife may not even be celebrating on the same night as her husband (not to mention starting and ending the fast on different days too!)

So each year I would call my friends and try to get the inside scoop and feel out the most likely day for our village to have their festivities. I always felt a little nervous getting the kids dressed up and wondering if we were going to show up in the streets all decked out only to have it turn out that it was the wrong night.

Girgaoun 2005


Finally, we would make it out, wondering on the walk over whether it was the right night or if we were going out too early.  We would get all nervous and jittery and finally breathe a sigh of relief when we rounded the corner and saw kids trip-trapping around in their glittery dresses and fancy vests and carrying a bunch of plastic grocery bags just to manage the loot.

 Girgaoun at Bethany’s preschool ’04
Even though we did not live in that village, people recognized us and always seemed happy to see us. Grandmas and moms and dads sat outside giving out treats, urging the kids and even the parents to take more. (Americans never give candy to the parents, so that one really surprised me!) One notices how the women are more visible during Girgaoun than at almost any other time of the year. In fact, the whole community is more visible. So many holidays are celebrated indoors with the extended family, but this one is an out-in-the-streets, let’s-all-party kind of holiday. It doesn’t even matter that it’s nearly 200 degrees out and if we could harness the watersource pouring down the middle of everybody’s backs, we could probably stop Bahrain from being a desert.

In any case, it was one of those glimpses I used to get from time to time of what it felt like to really be part of the community there in Bahrain, instead of being an outsider, and I loved it.

Girgaoun at Josh's preschool 2007

We affectionately referred to making the Girgaoun rounds as “trick-or-treating,” but this year Bethany and Josh experienced the American version for the first time. Josh, who loves dressing up in costumes, especially if he can scare people, changed his mind about his costume several times a week from September onwards. Bethany approached things more cautiously, feeling very uncertain about what constituted an appropriate costume in this culture, and finally decided to be a pirate. Josh was a skeleton.

The county informed residents of the Halloween rules: Trick-or-treating should take place from 6 pm until 8 pm. Only children 12 and under can participate. Try not to use masks. Inspect candy carefully.  I remember parents being worried about poisoned candy back in “my day,” but the official rule sheet was a surprise to me. Things have changed.

We went out at the stroke of 6, nervous that we weren’t out at the right time, wondering about unspoken rules and feeling like a foreigner and outsider just the way I used to in Bahrain. But we relaxed once we saw the first group of costumed kiddies out with their parents. After that, we had fun. Josh was totally in his element. He loved the spooky stuff; he loved that adults kept telling him how scary he looked in his skeleton costume; he definitely loved the candy. Bethany felt that the experience was essentially different from Girgaoun (even though she sang the Girgaoun song on one of the empty streets), largely because the spookiness factor of Halloween contrasted sharply with the celebratory atmosphere of the Gulf holiday.

For me, it felt familiar. Neighbors out in front of houses hanging out as they handed treats out to the children. Children giddy from the costumes and high on sugar. Neighbors happy to see each other and gushing over kids that they would normally overlook. Halloween was my first glimpse into feeling like this American neighborhood might be a community. I felt emotional and nostalgic, partly from missing Bahrain, but even more because just like those celebration days in Bahrain, Halloween was a tiny little window into something that I haven’t quite reached yet in America–a sense of belonging.

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I have taken a long hiatus from writing during our move and transition from Bahrain to America. When I am overwhelmed, I like to make my world very small; I seem not to be able to focus on relationships other than my immediate family or places other than right where I am. That has always been the case for me in times of transition, even just visiting the US for a holiday, and it is even more true for me during such a big life change. I do want to assure my friends– both those back in Bahrain and those waiting for me to show my face in public in America–that my heart is with you even though my focus has been small. You are not forgotten, and I’m not avoiding you 🙂

I have not felt like I have had anything to write here. I know that is strange, since there has been so much going on. Sometimes there is a fine line between having no thoughts and having so many spinning thoughts that it feels like none. I will try, in the next few weeks, to grab a hold of a few of those spinning thoughts to be able to tell you about moving to America.

I will say that the kids are doing very well with the transition. There is little sign of the sadness that was present in anticipation of moving. Bethany has friends in our neighborhood. We really like our home, though we may remain 30% packed for an undefined period of time 🙂 I still have packing paper on our upstairs windows.

We started homeschool nearly three weeks ago. I’m sure I’m having more fun than the kids, but I think they are liking it as well. We started a new math program called Living Math, which I love. It is also wonderful to be starting a year on American History while living in such a historic area. Though there has been (and still is) a steep learning curve to moving to a new country, we are happy to be here and feel like we are in the right place for now. More to come soon.

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It is now less than a month until our big move back to America. Getting ready for a huge life change is a roller coaster ride. Steve and I keep reminding ourselves to expect and roll with the ups and downs. Aside from really losing it a few times when thinking about having to leave close friends here, my dominant emotion has been excitement. I’m excited about being near family and friends without having to say good-bye after a couple of months. I am looking forward to my kids getting to be with their grandparents more.  I can’t wait to go out and walk in green, green Virginia and go for picnics in parks. I’m already drooling over having access to a public library and keeping a mental list of all the books I want to devour (A Primate’s Memoir, Stephanie Plum #16, a couple of Jennifer Weiner books, Pema Chodron…to name a few).  I am hoping to watch the Colbert Report as often as possible, and I’m looking forward to seeing Season 6 of The Office. I am excited that I will get to homeschool both kids this coming year. Even though I slowly waded my way into homeschooling , I have thoroughly enjoyed diving in  full time this past year with Bethany, and I am excited about coming into it with a little more experience this year.

Cooking is kind of a hobby for me, and I’m looking forward to having more ingredients available to play with. I want to take my kids to the museums in Washington, D.C. and to let them see Virginia in the fall when the leaves look like warm, colored snow. Winter, autumn, and spring have all been pretty much theoretical since we’ve lived in Bahrain, and I’m ready for them to be real again. And did I mention I can’t wait to soak up all that green? (you know, grass and stuff)

Of course, all that forward-looking excitement likes to alternate with anxiety.  Culture stress is one aspect of that, and starting over with a new life is another.  Whenever we visit America we experience that feeling of being out of sync, like watching a movie dubbed in another language. There are different particulars that catch us off guard with each visit, but some are always the same. I always feel strong anxiety in grocery stores in America. Go figure. Shopping is disorienting and overwhelming even though I  look forward to the products available.  Church is often the place of biggest culture shock to me, even though I feel like I “ought to” fit in there.  I also find that I don’t know what is “normal” about me and what is not. I don’t really know what daily life is like for other moms because I’ve never been a mom in America.  When I am at the playground surrounded by folks in my stage of life, I know that I look just like them, but I don’t know if I am like them or not.

I also really wonder how Bethany and Joshua will do with the culture change. Even as their mom, I can’t fully see all of the ways they have been shaped by growing up in the Arabian Gulf. Their differentness is invisible, and I hope I won’t miss seeing the things that affect them the most.

What scares me most is also what I am most deeply looking forward to–starting over. There are many reasons that we decided to move back to America. I find it hard to capture the reasons in words, and sometimes the factors are different for me and for Steve. One way to explain it would be that we have changed a great deal over the past few years. There has been stress and burnout and depression and disappointment…which all sounds pretty negative, but we feel like it has been a catalyst for a lot of positive change in our lives. The problem was that our life didn’t seem to fit right any more. We are still in a state of internal transition, so we are in the uncomfortable but hopeful place of knowing we want to change direction but not knowing what direction we are to head in next. So, we are ready to feel our way forward step by step in a new place.

I am incredibly grateful for this chance to start over, to let go of some of our goals and even long-time dreams and to find a new way of being. It is scary too.  I’m not scared of being in the dark or of not knowing what’s next. I’m scared because I don’t know how to communicate who I am to people right now. I’m going to meet new friends, and I don’t know how to define myself to them. Scarier than that is people I already know–I have changed a lot, but I am too much in the middle of the process to be able to defend that change. I fear that I will not be who others expect me to be, and I am worrying about that a lot.  In the last few years, I’ve been wriggling out of the expectations cocoon, which has taken a good amount of courage, but going back to America and not being what people expect is a really big jump for me on the bravery continuum.  (As a side note, this is one of the reasons I have been rather sluggish with this blog–I keep second-guessing whether I really want to be authentic and honest about who I really am and what I’m really thinking.)

So there you have my excited and my scared, my hopeful and apprehensive. I feel really good deep down about this move, even about the bravery I will have to summon to confront my fears. I’m grateful for my friends on both sides of the ocean who walk with me through this process.

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