Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Packing, Three Stories and a Picture Book

“My yesterdays are all boxed up and neatly put away…
but every now and then you come to mind…”

--Sheryl Crow

I literally almost had a panic attack about packing. It came down to the point that I actually, physically, couldn’t do it. My decision to “be all there” hindered any ideas of organizing… stuff. Buying presents, giving away nearly all my clothes and household items, and fitting what was left over into three bags [or the trash] was an overwhelming task. What I couldn’t bear was knowing that there was a clock somewhere inside of me that was just ticking away. Every moment I spent packing and cleaning my apartment was one more moment not spent with a friend. All the times I had previously wished to be in the States ran through my head like a slideshow and I deeply regretted those moments—thinking, “If only I felt then the way I feel now, I would have approached those days so differently.”

I didn’t want to leave.
But for my sanity, for my emotional health,
for viable living, I had to.
And so I packed up and I left.

I approached my last 10 days or so with a treasuring in my heart, with audible whispers in my soul telling me, “You’re going to miss this.” [By now, you know TYD dramatic flair—imagine it in full force with anticipatory nostalgia fueling it all.] With every [dumb] material item stuffed in a bag, I exponentially bottled up an emotion and a memory. Even today, I am still unpacking [or maybe ignoring] some boxes from my one year in the ME.

Some really good advice that I got was to prepare three different stories:

1. A story for someone who says, “Hey! Good to see you! How was your trip?”
First of all, it wasn’t a trip. This person has an attention span of approximately 14 seconds, so share some sweet, light-hearted, cultural/language faux pas story. They’ve got places to go, and, really… you might cry when you look up to see their reaction and find that they’ve… left you. Standing there. Talking. To yourself. [Yes. This happened to me.]

2. A story for someone who says, “Ah! I’m so glad you’re back! What do you miss the most??”
This person knows your name, read your blog/newsletter and might have actually prayed for you. They deserve a 2-3 minute story about something of your newly past life and are actually willing to listen to you for a few minutes.

3. A story for someone who invites you to coffee or dinner and says, “Tell me about...”
This person is invested and is setting time and distractions aside to know. To know your day-to-day life, to hear about your friends and to see how you’ve changed. [You know you’ve changed, right?]

For me… well… I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to share. I felt like—no, I’ll be honest: I feel like I have too much context to set up, and everyone’s apparently already an expert on the Middle East and “A-Rabs,” that I didn’t don’t have much room to… unpack. I can’t do an entire world justice in the 34 seconds someone gives me, so instead of having three stories ready, I just smile that Sarah smile and say, “I loved it and I miss my friends so much. The food was delicious and I can’t wait to go back.”

And that about shuts everyone up—at least the #1s and the #2s. And I keep smiling. [Because I like throwing people off and smashing their (false) ideas of the ME.]

For the #3s in my life, I hand them a picture book that my dear, dear friend made for me [by sneaking onto my computer when I wasn’t home and copying photos]. Each picture has a story and so I let them ask me about the photo that most interests them and then I share that story. This picture book has saved me a million times over—unlike my advice, I didn’t have those three stories prepared. [I was serious when I said I didn’t want to talk about it.] When you share, though, be completely positive about your experience in the first 8 minutes. Why ruin an opportunity to tell of His great works with a complaint or hardship? [Save it for later—He’ll send you someone who can carry that with you.]

I think it’s both good and bad that my joys and trials are safely tucked within me. I’m approaching 10 months away from my desert and I’m still protecting my “yesterdays.” They’re alive inside me, so precious to me, and sometimes I let them out. [I know I should more often than I do.] They are most easily coaxed out when someone actually asks me a thoughtful question, when they sit down, point to a photo and say: “Tell me about her.”

It happened.
At [an early] coffee.
So I made her take this picture:

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Back to Amreeka: They Don't Know...

April is going to be my month of reflection and saying goodbye.
This one’s for those who have asked me
about “transitioning back to the States.”

The thing about being a shagra [blondie] in the desert is that people spot you a kilometer away. And they watch you. And they wonder about you. They call out to you. They welcome you. And sometimes they follow you. Well, in the States, no one knows about my secret: that I'm ruined. They don't know that just 24 hours ago I was sitting on a concrete floor sipping mint tea with my friend, “Amina.” Or that just 3 months ago I was dragged onto a bus filled with women dancing, smoking, singing and just cluck-cluck-clucking. In my face. At a volume that still makes my ears ring. They don't know that I can [barely] communicate in Arabic, or that just 9 months ago, I was a minor celebrity in a teeny-tiny-Middle-Eastern city. Nope. They don't even notice me. And if they do, they're wondering why my clothes don't quite fit or why I’ll approach three women for directions before remembering that it's okay for me to accost a man.

They don't know that I secretly talk myself into eating with my left hand. Or that I had to have a little discussion with myself about wearing a short sleeve shirt without the cardigan. They don't know that I worry about letting the water run for one unused second or that I feel totally guilty about taking a 10 minute shower. They don't know why I stare at women with head coverings or why I crane my neck to see, just see, if maybe that couple, just maybe, is speaking "my kind" of Arabic. They don't know that I almost kissed that woman when she hugged me or that I totally recoiled and cringed when that guy gave me a hug. They don't.

They don't know that I sometimes struggle going to church on Sundays or that I'm beaming because I simply just said something like my Love's Name aloud without some modification. They don't know that I still get nervous about visiting websites with articles that have words I'm supposed to avoid. They don't know that I actually needed this scarf a year ago and now it's just “a cute accessory.” No. Actually, someone with six kids sold it to me on a street corner after asking me if I knew Justin Bieber.

I had to come to terms with the fact that everyone was waiting on me to be “normal” again. To not get upset when someone at a cash register hands me my change, thereby touching me, instead of placing it on the counter or on a small dish for me to collect without making contact. They're waiting for me fight the urge to systematically greet everyone in the room, to drive in between the dashed lines on the road and... wait in a line. Silently. [What. Ever. America. Totally ridiculous and uptight of you.] They don't know that I love women who sit too close to me, who feed me when I’m not even hungry and who pray over me to find a husband… yesterday.

Father has given me a peace and a delight in this. I no longer need to explain to every person I meet that, “Oh, I've never seen that show because I wasn't in the States when it came out.” Nope. They don't need to know, I don't need to talk about it and I don't need them to know.

Turns out, I still get a little upset when people ask me what color my burka was. [Yellow. With purple polka dots, of course.] But, slowly, He started bringing me people to talk to and share with—those who’ve traveled and lived abroad more outrageously than I. People who have their own “Aminas” and “Mohammads” and “falafel moments.” And they have shown me that they are able to engage in both worlds with a beautiful balance.

In the months before I left the ME, people kept urging me to disengage and transition back. And I made a conscious decision to “be all there, wherever I was.” And I don't regret that at all—I’d do it again. What I do regret was that I failed to apply that rule when I started over in the States. I’m being taught to “be all here”even while large chunks of my heart are in another world, with another people. I think it's a most excellent problem to have—the challenge to balance yourself, your interests, your relationships, your conversations, your love. I'm here for “such a time as this”—to engage with those who are right before me. This is a reality, too, and this American life is worthy of my full attention and energy, especially when I firmly believe that our Father is forever sustaining us, preparing us and directing our steps.

He's beautifully writing a story of my days,
and those days will forever include
my sweet Desert City and all it entails.

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