To girls and people who know them

Dear Tender Hearts,

This started out as an open letter to high school girls, but I’m going to expand the list a little because there are so many more people in this world who are tender-hearted, wide-eyed hopefuls and they can learn from the girls of the world too.

I was inspired to write this because I’ve been hanging out with a lot of high school girls lately. February saw me as an alumna judge at a high school debate tournament, a counselor at a youth winter camp and a freelance sports journalist at the championship game of a girls’ basketball league. So yeah, I’ve been around a lot of giggling, crying, squealing, hugging, bouncing, laughing, dancing girls this month.

Perhaps college (and then “adult life” and then “college: round two”) has embittered me to the once golden years of my girlhood. Recently I have found myself looking back on those years (8-11 grade, mostly) with a shudder and a grimace.

I was loud. I was nerdy. I was self-righteous and so self-absorbed (Oooookay, I honestly thought this list wasn’t going to sound so much like present-day me. Awkward). I roll my eyes at the stupid ideas I had about boys and cringe thinking about the things I did to impress them. The whole world was so unstable, it could have shattered with a glance (not that I had the social skills to perceive which glances were earth-shattering and which weren’t). I prided myself on knowing everyone, and in the end, I don’t think I really knew anyone.

My real friends were all saints for putting up with me for so long. So were my parents.

When I finally have my fifteen children, I hope they’re all boys, I tell myself sometimes. Girls are a mess.

But this month changed my mind. (Not about the fifteen kids – that’s still basically a life goal).

Courage, sacrifice, determination, commitment, toughness, heart, talent, guts. That’s what little girls are made of.
-Bethany Hamilton

It was oddly and almost uncomfortably nostalgic to walk onto the campus in Redlands(ish) where the speech and debate tournament was being held. A bunch of kids were walking around in their suits like they were the coolest thing since sliced bread, pants too long and jackets too baggy. The girls all made concerted efforts to look classy and fashionable, a difficult task with braces and bangs and acne. I know. I have been there.

All the girls had very loud, generally not fully-informed opinions which drifted on shrill voices across campus. At that age, we want so badly to be seen because sometimes it doesn’t feel like we exist unless someone else says so. We want to our ideas to be heard, our voices to be recognized. We build these huge worlds up in our heads, ourselves half at the helm and half pitching seasick over the side. It’s deliriously exciting and painful and, frankly, I’m glad I’ve mostly outgrown the nervous energy.

If mini lady-bosses are bundles of energy, mini athletes are explosions. I love sports reporting, especially at the high school level when all the parents and siblings come out to watch. It’s exciting and fun, and I get paid to do it which is like, the very best of situations.

The hardest part is the post-game interviews. Don’t get me wrong, the girls are all sweethearts. But all that pent-up “girl energy” usually just comes out in squeals and shrieks. Not much coherence or quotable material. After nearly every game, as I leave the court, pool or field, I hear one of my interviewees loudly telling someone about the experience of being talked to by a real reporter with all the color and frustration and excitement a girl can have.

I worked at a high school camp over Valentine’s Day weekend. On the last day, I heard a girl crying in a bathroom stall. Her friend was standing by the sinks just kind of chillin’ so I asked her what was wrong.

“Dean is leaving today,” said the friend.

Ah yes.

I knew this feeling. Dean was the super cute college boy who also happened to be just the nicest kid ever. If I was a fifteen-year-old girl again, I’d be crying over Dean too. I’ve certainly shed enough tears over boys in my day.

“That’s hard,” I said, putting on my most mature, counselor-y voice. “I know how tough it is to get attached to people. But you’ll learn as you get older that it’s so much nicer to get to be friends with all these boys. You’ll see them enough and you’ll get a lot more out of a friendship than out of an attachment.”

I went on for several more minutes, spewing my hard-earned life advice. The friend just continued chillin’ by the sink, listening patiently.

Finally, the bathroom door opened and out came a red-eyed girl. My jaw dropped.

It was Dean’s sister.

I looked at the friend with one of those earth-shattering glances and she smiled a little.

“You knew she was his sister and you just let me go on like that?” I asked her, trying to hold onto my mature, counselor-y demeanor which was quickly slipping away.

“It was good stuff,” she said with a simpering smile.

Watching Dean’s heart-wrecked sister wipe her eyes tragically on a scratchy paper towel, I was suddenly flooded with another kind of nostalgia. For a brief moment, I was back in my tenth grade bedroom, sobbing into my hands and listening to the CD-mix my brother left behind when he packed for his return trip to college after Christmas break. (This was back when we still used CDs, kids. We’ve come a long way in a decade).

Suddenly, in that ridiculous bathroom, I felt so stupid. In my desperate attempt to grow up and reject the humiliating mistakes of my younger years (which I just seem to be repeating on escalated scales in my twenties), I threw away some very precious parts of who I am.

Yes, I was one of those shrill, opinionated high school girls who would literally have tried to take over the world if Congress hadn’t had age requirements. I’ve tempered that ambition and righteous zeal with a little perspective, life experience, empathy and the ability to listen to constructive criticism. But I wish I stood up for myself as much now as I did then. I wish I pushed to have myself heard a little more often. I wish I could tell all those bossy girls that there is nothing wrong with taking charge of something and doing a good job. This is your world too. Don’t lose your desire to make a difference.

I was also one of those girls could not get a handle the energy level and bring it down to a normal setting. I was fiercely competitive and ferociously excited to win. Honestly, I was really just excited about everything. It’s hard to do that now because, in my experience, excitement often leads to disappointment. It is so much easier to go through life without expectations or hopes. What no one told me was that indifference uses energy too. It will drain you till you’re empty and leave you to sit alone with your predictable, half-enthused life. I wish I could tell all the girls who squeal and giggle and hope and dream, that life is far, far too big and too wonderful to let the risk of disappointment dampen the beauty of possibility.

And I was most definitely one of those love-struck teens. I was head-over-heels with someone new every week. But I also fell in love with people. I loved humans. It didn’t matter who they were or where they came from, I’d find a way to be friends. Granted, it was an imperfect friendship. I have learned a lot about being a friend to someone over the years. But even as I left high school, I could feel myself becoming more wary and judgmental. Out of necessity, I tell myself, I have built up a few small walls. But I wish they’d come back down. I wish I could tell the tender hearts out there that, yes, the world is full of broken people who will hurt you, use you, ignore you, hate you, lie to you or never pay you back for that lunch. And the ones who will hurt you the most will be the ones you least expect. But the safest approach to all these people is the same: love them anyway. Relish the cracks that make us human and love them with the compassion of the Divine.

I am a little less mortified by my own experiences in girlhood now. And I have the girls in my life to thank for it.

Grow up strong. Grow up excited. Grow up tender.

 

Best of luck, and all my prayers,
A girl in progress

The truth about pineapples

“Why do you call it a pineapple?” Lukas asked as the tram rumbled gently along a blue coast.

“Because of the spikes, I think,” I said, giving the fruit in his hand a concentrated stare. “And because it’s a fruit like apples are, I suppose.”

He laughed at me and shook his head.

“It’s a silly name,” he said. “Ananas is much better.”

We had already established that pineapples are called ananas in both Spanish and Czech but our tram was taking its sweet time in getting the crew to our destination, so the pineapple kept coming up.

“What is it in Farsi?” I wondered aloud to our companions.

“What is what?” asked Samir. One hand gripped a bag full of groceries and one eye followed the bouncing energy of his young son, *Samaneh.

*(For their privacy and protection, all names in this post and those I will post about while in Greece have been changed).

“What is the word for ‘pineapple’ in Farsi?” I asked.

“What is a pineapple?” he asked me.

Lukas held up the pineapple by its foliage and said in his native German tongue, “Ananas.”

Ananas,” Samir repeated. “We call it that also.”

I glared at them both incredulously and tapped Ali on the shoulder. “What do you call this fruit?” I asked, pointing to the subject in question.

Ananas,” he assured me, smiling.

I didn’t believe any of them.

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Saturday, January 9, 2016. By 1:30 that afternoon, about the time we were rolling past sloping beaches along a smooth, steel river, I had been in Greece exactly three days. It seems like a lifetime already.

I came to work with an organization that reaches out to refugees, primarily Syrians, Afghanis and Iranians, but I have been told that the center has hosted Nepalis, Nigerians and more when occasion necessitates it.

The team is primarily Greek, German and Finnish, with the notable addition of a Dutch girl – ‘Kiwi’ as the refugee kids call her – and several American women. For an ametuer linguist like myself, this is heaven. Most of our time has been working at the center, but Saturday is a day off and the interns decided to take a trip to the beach.

Lukas, Johannes and Doro, our German contingent, had led the charge. On Thursday, after our work at the center was finished, they invited me out for coffee with Kiwi to make plans. Sitting at a little table in the middle of a square beneath the shadow of the Acropolis, we sketched out the weekend.

In the morning on Saturday, we girls would take the metro to Neos Kosmos, getting lunch supplies on the way, and meet the boys at the tram. The boys would go to the market to pick up fresh fruits and vegetables (hence, our peculiar pineapple) and invite some of our Afghani and Iranian friends to join.

While waiting for the group to collect at the tram stop, Lukas asked me to guard the pineapple so he could buy a volleyball from a nearby vendor. Thusly, our discussion about the name of said fruit began.

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It took us several false starts to find the perfect beach spot to settle at. We got off the tram three times before we all agreed, “Yes, this is where we should spend the day.”

“We have nothing but time,” Ali reminded us after our second attempt to find a patch of sand to set up camp. We had landed upon an empty beach, only to find that it was empty because of the stench and garbage. Dragging our feet and our empty stomachs back to the tram stop, we waited for the next carriage.

But it was worth it. A pebbly shore and brown-sugar sand with room to bounce the volleyball and several jetties to isolate us from the crowds was just a few stops further down the line. We spread out blankets and unloaded our lunch.

Samaneh took off in search of little rocks. He is five years old. His mother and brother are both waiting for him in Sweden. When the paperwork goes through, Samaneh and his father, Samir, will join them there. Today, he was content to search for pebbles in the sand.

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Kiwi and Samir’s friend, Hassam, both played an active part in watching and playing with the little guy whose unending well of energy and distraction was both commendable and inspiring.

Kiwi studies Farsi at university. As far as I can tell, she speaks beautifully. At the very least, her interactions with those who speak Farsi are beautiful to behold, but so many human interactions are when they are sincere. And hers are sincere.

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Drinks were poured, bread was sliced and passed around, cheese was fought over with friendly aggression and the pineapple sat in the middle of it all like a king among his royal subjects.

I thought for a moment how strange it was to be sharing lunch with people from four different nationalities (myself representing a fifth). On the surface, we don’t have much in common. We only met through mutual connections with a church and church-related ministries.

So Christ. We have Christ in common.

Ali, a prankish kook, gleefully gave Doro lessons in Farsi in exchange for some German vocabulary while the rest of us watched and laughed and ate. When the language lessons petered out, Doro and Johannes grabbed the volleyball and instigated a game that I made a point of staying out of.

Kiwi and Samaneh were busy collecting rocks and building walls, so I took a walk along the beach.

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If you have never seen a beach in Greece, let me describe it to you. The sand is thick and soft but speckled with colored rocks. Water laps the shore in modest waves that barely break, like the continuous breath of the bay as it sleeps. In fact, between our shore and the one on the nearest island in sight, there doesn’t seem to be a single disturbance on the surface of the water. Only the island rising out of the sea interrupts the smooth horizon. And it is quite a sight. It, and the islands behind it in varying shades of shadow-blue, is a monster. It is a mountain birthed from the sea. It is the nose of a sleeping giant lying just below the surface of the water. Boats pass by it and birds fly over it and no one seems to notice it but me.

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By the time my feet were ready to return, the sky was dimming and the volleyball game had ended. Kiwi pulled out a guitar and we sang songs in German, English and Farsi.

The languages we share in bits and pieces, but the content unites us completely. Only with the Word of God can strangers be brothers and enemies be friends.

Ali grabbed a knife and assisted Johannes in slicing up our pineapple as Hassam and Samir helped the girls maintain a decent chorus. Occasionally, Ali would jump into a song with a round of “Happy Birthday” just to throw us all off course.

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Before the last of the light left the sky, we took selfies and group pictures in front of the waterline. Johannes and Ali were brave enough to jump into the water and swim around for a bit. (“Okay, I was wrong,” Ali admitted as he shivered next to us fifteen minutes later. “That was a bad idea. We should not have gone in.”).

Then we all watched the sun slip behind those islands like a drop of gold blazing a path through the velvet sky.

We munched on the last of the food and divied up the remaining chocolate, bread and fruit. Collecting blankets and bags, we marched back to the tram stop in the dark.

I watched my companions as the tram slinked its way once more into the heart of Athens. What different roads we all have taken to lead us to this spot. A cynic would say it was chance. But we know better.

We know that it is God who has charted our course, and for many on this tram, only a faith that He will bring us to its end will sustain us during stormy seas.

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Samir said to me when the day was finished, “I will forget my own name before I forget this day.”

Fellowship is sweet. It is precious. And to see brothers and sisters in Christ drink it up with such fervor is a joy I am not likely to forget either.

Three days in Athens and I have been humbled. Humbled by the courage of people who have faced tremendous adversity. Humbled by the kindness I have been shown by people who did not know me when the week began, who speak a different language, have a different history and use a different word for a fruit I have always known as a pineapple. Humbled by the greatness of the God who has brought us all together as heirs to a promise we do not deserve.

Six Stages of Reverse Culture Shock

The very idea of reverse culture shock sounds laughable. Frankly, it sounds a little like something a traveling yuppie would make up as an excuse for not having their life together when they return home from wandering abroad. I may have read a total of two articles about the topic before coming back to San Diego after two years in Prague. I don’t think a journal-full would have prepared me for the arduous process of taking the person you’ve become and assimilating them back into the place belonging to the person you once were.

But I’m getting there and, more importantly, others have gotten there already, which gives me hope. It took me the whole summer and several weeks into a new semester, with multiple trips around the USA, to figure this all out. Honestly, my Kimmy Schmidt-esque stories of rediscovering a culture I left for 24 months could fill several blog posts, but I’ve gotten lazy so we’re condensing this into six basic stages of reverse culture shock.

Here goes.

1. HAZE

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a plane home.

Jet-lagged, weary and inexplicably hungry (if you’re me, you’re always hungry), you stumble out of the airport in a blur of vaguely familiar sights and sounds. Some things stick out like finely stenciled pictures – the palm trees you never noticed, the size of the masts looming out of the shipyard, the feel of the new seat covers in the family car. Others play out before you like a foggy, black-and-white film. The bend in the road you’ve driven over a million times or the creak of the back gate leading into a softly lit patio. Home.

People and faces, voices, sounds and space all take on a new life and in your travel-tired stupor, they seem like strangers.

I remember the first night back in my own bed. It didn’t feel like mine. It was uncomfortable and unfamiliar and I missed my bed tucked away beneath a slanted wood roof somewhere in Prague. Homecoming is not what you expect it to be.

2. LOSS

Life in Zbraslav 2013
a walk through a Czech forest.

If going to sleep on a strange bed in your old home is hard, waking up to your childhood room is heart-wrenching. Immediately, two kinds of loss sink deeply into the conscious layer of your beating heart: what you missed and what you’ve left behind. It’s not like you expected life to stand still while you were away, but you hadn’t really intended for it to take off without you either. It did. And instead of being able to take comfort in the things around your room, suddenly you feel out of place. Your thoughts will drift to safe spots in your other ‘place’ and you will think of what you’ve just left behind. Forest paths to your home in the village, friends to drink coffee with, quilted blankets and familiar sunrises.

As the haze begins to disappear and the days turn into weeks, you’ll feel more acutely the loss of the world you left behind and catch glimpses and shadows of the life you missed.

That first morning, staring at the blue walls covered in papers and posters my youngest sister had put up in my absence, I swear I felt my heart ripping in two pieces as it tried desperately to be wholly in Prague and wholly here, at home. And, of course, it couldn’t.

3. DISCOVERY

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a skyscraper in New York City with a very good friend.

Expect to be surprised every day by something completely ordinary. Expect to have a thousand questions about things that have changed in the months or years since you’ve been gone. What is Uber? Who the heck is Ariana Grande? Exactly how long have fleeked up eyebrows been a thing, and what does “fleek” mean anyway?

Some of this will be rediscovery. Yes, water is free in restaurants. No, you don’t have to take your shoes off every time you walk inside. Being able to drive yourself places will be liberating, having to buy your own gas again will feel like a death sentence. Pandora? Netflix? Hulu? Little Caesars? Real Mexican food? Heaven.  

The radio hasn’t lost its magic yet. I’ve been home for four months and every song on the radio still sounds new to me. I’ve been getting down to Uptown Funk like nobody’s business. It’s a brave new world.

4. INDIGNATION

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a sunset in Dallas with my long-lost brother.

As the shimmery layer of sparkle wears off your newly rediscovered home, you begin to see things you hadn’t noticed before. Things like the entitled attitude your friends or neighbors have about things like owning cars or getting an education. The narrow views and set ways of family members regarding political issues will drive you up a wall. And when you walk past your fourth unused drinking fountain in a day, covered in spider webs and gunk, you want to shout out, “you have to pay for this stuff in Europe! Free, clean drinking water right here, folks! They’ll walk all day to find water in Africa and here it comes out of a spout!”

But no one will listen, because no one has been where you’ve been or seen what you’ve seen. You’ll be lumped in with every other traveling yuppie who has ever come home and said, “they do it better over there.”

Two weeks after I got home, I was people watching at the food court in the mall and it struck me how confidently Americans take their seats. They walk and talk and sit and stand like they own whatever ground they’re touching. And while they occupy that plastic chair, it is their throne. Europeans do not come close to exuding this air of confidence and control. I think that’s when I realized how hard it would be to ‘come home’ all the way because I no longer identified with my own people. Folks were going to think I was nuts. Who would ever understand the mental battle I was fighting every day just to make sense of the home I used to know? Just to keep things together.

5. ISOLATION

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a piece of my heart in San Francisco.

This may be the worst part, and honestly, it may not come in this order. You may feel alone the day you arrive home or a month later when you finally realize why things aren’t clicking the way they used to. But eventually, the frustration you feel at your own culture for their blindness to their faults and the welling sense of loss toward wherever it is you’ve left will isolate you. It’s like a breakdown in communication. Because people around you can look at the same situation and not see it the way you now do. You will feel disconnected and alone.

It’s discouraging to be back around family and friends who should know you better than anyone, but suddenly they can’t seem to grasp why you feel strongly about water fountains or why you sometimes have to stop in the middle of what you’re doing to process a painful memory.

I came home right before our family reunion. I got to hold my nephew for the first time ever. I went out for a night on the town with my brother. I got ice-cream with an assortment of siblings in an illegal takeover of an abandoned baseball field. But the people who made me feel most at home were the random friends who would come up to me out of the blue and ask, “how is it being back? What can I do? Want to get coffee and talk about it?” They were the ones who’ve been there and back. They’ve all had a ‘place’ and left it to come home again. They knew. And they reached out with human connection and empathy, and it helped me move on to Stage Six.

6. ADJUSTMENT

a new friend.
a new friend.

At some point, you have to accept that life is moving quickly and you need to jump on the train or get left behind again. Working back into crazy American eating patterns (so much grease, so much store-bought food, sooooo late at night) or re-learning how to drive a car (which I was never very good at to begin with) will come with time. Eventually, you’ll stop waking up every morning wondering what the weather is like in your ‘place’ and the hole left by the friends you miss so dearly will begin to fill with new people.

And the scariest part about the adjustment phase is the thought of losing your experience. So let me be clear. Moving on does not mean forgetting the past. It does not mean abandoning your friendships, erasing your memories or sinking back into old ways you’ve grown out of. It just means adopting this new person you’ve become and making a space for her in your old world. Both you and it have changed and the fit may not be perfect yet. But that’s how you’ll continue to grow. You’ll be challenged. You’ll be tested. You may be lost for a little while. But, believe it or not, that’s the road we’re all on, culture shock or not.

Congratulations. You’ve caught up to the rest of us. Now, onward and upward.