Welcome Stranger

My five year old suggested that I give up sleep for Lent, since “it has to be something you really love.” He is nothing if not observant, that kid. I promptly informed him I’ve been fasting from sleep for five years and two months and I am still waiting for Easter. All that to say, YES, I am exhausted and no amount of concealer can hide it. But it’s not just the normal “I have three kids under five” exhaustion. There is an intellectual exhaustion, a sheer depletion of brain power that comes with being an immigrant in a country where they do not speak your language.

I looked it up on Webster’s to be sure and yes, we qualify as immigrants. I am “1 : a person who comes to a country to live there.” The adult definition included the word “permanently” and as we have no current plans to move back, we meet the requirements. So when I woke up this morning to word that the Trump administration has rewritten their executive order restricting immigration, well, disappointment would be a weak word for what I felt.

Prior to moving to Switzerland, when I heard the word immigrant, I thought of Mexican neighbors I knew in California. I didn’t know them very well but I went to school with their children or grandchildren and knew that some of my friends in grade school spoke Spanish at home. We celebrated the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe which, outside of my tiny Catholic school, is celebrated mostly in Mexico. Other than that, I did not have any idea what life as an immigrant was like.

Please forgive my ignorance. I am embarrassed to say I never really thought much about immigration outside of these friends’ parents who had moved to the U.S. a long time ago and led very All-American lives. I deeply regret my lack of empathy and lack of attempt to understand what life as an immigrant to America is like. We lived in Houston, Texas for crying out loud and still I was able to stay happily unaware of the difficulties immigrants experience when they move to America.

So many different kinds of people immigrate to America. Some of them speak English fluently. Many of them do not. Some of them come for jobs. Some come for their family. I do not know all the statistics but I do have tremendous empathy for how hard it is to live in America if you are not from there because I live in another country and it is hard.

We moved here because of my husband’s job. He works for a company headquartered here and when we were asked to move, we knew it would be great for his career. We dreamed of our children learning French from birth and becoming fluent. We hoped they would develop skills and cultural awareness that cannot be taught in America. We were told it was a very international city and that we probably would find many English speakers. Someone even said “You don’t need French.” They were wrong. I speak French every day not just out of novelty but out of necessity. I have sat waiting for deliveries on the wrong day or at the wrong time because I could not understand what the driver said before he hung up. I have showed up for appointments at the wrong place. I have lost my spot on waiting lists for public preschool because I did not understand the system described mostly in French. I have offended people by not saying the proper greeting or adding the proper title. And that’s the entry level stuff.

I cannot communicate fluently with my son’s teachers. I speak basic French and can understand more than that but when I try to speak it back, I do not sound native. I stutter and stumble over conjugations and vocabulary. It takes time to learn another language. In English and in my home country, I am eloquent, well-read, informed and witty. But, in French and here in Geneva, I am not. I am halting, timid, embarrassed and anxious. I read 156 books last year but when someone on the playground asks me how my daughters are doing, I can only reply with the French equivalent of “They are good. They go to school. They are 2 years old and 7 months. They are girls.” I worry every day that I will embarrass my son by trying to speak to his friends or their parents. So far he is either unaware or very patient.

And that’s just the language. The cultural differences are numerous as well. You say hello to everyone. You greet everyone with their title, “Madame” or “Monsieur.” You may never meet your neighbors because they are very private. Parents are exceptionally hands off at the playground. You do not speak loudly in restaurants. You do not mind when people bring their dogs to the table next to you. Short emails are considered rude. No one uses voicemails. You do not wear work out apparel to the grocery store. Even if you just worked out. Athleisure is not a thing here. You cannot say “But that’s not how we normally do it” because you do not know how they normally do it. And any time we eat a lot or buy large pieces of meat or wear bulky white sneakers, I hear the slightly snobby, “Ahh, tres Americain!”

And that is nothing about the feelings. All the feelings. We do love living here. Everything we hoped for has come to pass. My kids speak French. My husband is doing well in his job. We have built a community here. But, with all the great things come the tough things. I wish I could more accurately describe how exhausting it is to do simple things like get a drivers license or sign up for a class when you don’t speak the language. How lonely it feels to be unable to speak to anyone in the grocery store or cafe. How embarrassed I feel of my lack of knowledge. The simultaneous pride and envy I feel about my kids assimilating. The sadness of missing home. The guilt I feel for not being there and for enjoying being here.

As an educated, privileged American, I have access to all the resources in the world. I have apps and tutors and guidebooks. I can hire a babysitter so I can study a third language. But being an immigrant to Switzerland is exhausting. I am weary and tired and my heart breaks for those immigrants in America who are struggling with similar feelings and obstacles and especially for those who do not have access to all the resources I do. I can’t change anything about this immigration plan (or lack thereof) but I hope that when you meet a person who has immigrated to the United States, if they are speaking another language at the grocery store or they seem rude or cold, you give them the benefit of the doubt that they are intelligent, talented and a human therefore worthy of knowing. This new order may not seem like a big deal to you but it creates an atmosphere of unwelcomeness. If immigrants to America are anything like me, they are acutely aware of it.

I am reminded of the important words of Jesus, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” I remember each person who welcomed me here, who smiled at the children or tried to help me fill out forms or find things in the stores. The people who ignored my ignorance and treated me politely. I was a welcomed stranger and hope that my words here can encourage you to be a welcomer of strangers too.

Mine

What is mine to do? It’s a question that’s been rattling around in my brain since I first heard it from my friend Suzanne Stabile on her podcast, The Road Back To You. I think that if we can answer that question, we will find a big clue to our purpose and calling here. And it seems so easy, “what is mine to do?”

The question can have a simple answer or a deep answer. Mine is the laundry and the cooking and the pick ups and drop offs and the reading to and singing to and tucking in. But mine is also the teaching, encouraging and affirming the three little selves that live with me. Mine is the caring for my husband who works in a bruising industry and comes home tired and worn out. Mine is the writing when I think of something and think it might be helpful. Mine is the welcoming of friends and family when they come to visit. 

I can usually answer what is mine to do but I get distracted by what I would like to be mine. I envy those whose things seem bigger than mine, those who preach the truth or fight injustice or write the songs or the books or the tv shows, who lead teams or change minds or create art. I can get so focused on what is yours to do that I lose sight of mine. I know I’m off track when I begin to feel discontent. I am never as satisfied or happy if I’m wishing mine was a different lot. If I find myself nostalgic for things that used to be mine to do in a different season of life. I know no one does it all at the same time and resting in the seasonality of life as my friend Jill reminds me helps me to patiently tend to what is mine to do in this season. 

Living in Geneva has simplified and distilled my answer to the question “What is mine to do?” See in the States, I would probably get involved in the PTA and the campaign to save my daughter’s preschool building and the local protests against construction and I would lose any chance I had of mindfully tending my own garden. Because I don’t speak enough French, my involvement in society is limited. I cannot crusade or argue but I do know enough to speak to another mom on the playground and politely ask how her son or daughter is doing. And that has to be enough for me. 

I consider myself a pretty smart person. I read a lot and listen to various podcasts, news programs, etc. I am a voracious consumer of information. But in this season of my life, I don’t have a lot of output. I don’t have a lot of opportunities to speak about these things and ideas because I cannot even really conjugate the past tense. So I am learning about being humble and not being a part of the smart or the active and just doing my things to do. It is hard to admit that my main tasks are menial at least in the here and now. But it is in the obedience in the small things that we learn obedience in the big things. Awhile ago I came across this quote from Helen Keller, “I long to accomplish a great and noble task but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble.”

I would love to be more involved in things and maybe someday I will be but for now you will find me wiping noses, reading books, vacuuming up dog hair and putting kids to bed. That is mine to do. And I am learning to be grateful for the language barrier that makes it much easier to focus on my own patch of this earth, to do these small tasks with the greatest care and focus on what is mine. 

Bon Courage

I’m pregnant. Actually, I’m closer to not being pregnant. As in, due date is less than three weeks away. So you can imagine how large my belly is and how uncomfortable I must look walking around Geneva with my giant American-size baby bump. I have had several people ask me if it’s twins. And they started asking me that in May. I tell them “No, it’s just an American baby.” It usually shuts them up. It has been a little hard for me though if I am honest. I usually don’t struggle too much with body image except when I’m pregnant, which seems weird because my body is working hard for someone else and I should feel better about that. A few times this pregnancy, I’ve had friends remind me that I’m not “doing nothing” as I have said. My body is working all the time. These friends are good reminders.

It’s not all uncomfortable or frustrating. One thing I have enjoyed here is the encouragement people have been giving me. Instead of “good luck” like we Americans say to very pregnant women, the French phrase is “Bon Courage”- meaning “Good Courage.” Technically, Google Translate says it means good luck but there is a subtle difference that I appreciate. Instead of sort of leaving it to fate and saying, “Well, this next month is out of your hands,” even if it is, “Bon Courage” implies “You Can Do This! You’ve Got This! Be Strong!” And don’t we all need more of that message in our lives- nine months pregnant or not?

So, in a few weeks, we will meet Skipper who will not actually be named Skipper. Forest told me last summer (please note: before I was even pregnant) that he would have a brother named Skipper. We don’t know the gender though he remains pretty convinced. We remain convinced we will not be naming him or her Skipper. But even Annie, who has fewer than 100 words calls the baby Skipper. Anyway, we will meet him or her and until then, I am going to have Good Courage. I hope you do too.

My Messy House

It is probably no surprise to anyone who knows me well that I struggle with perfectionism. By “struggle” I mean swim in an ocean of it and occasionally keep my head above water. I might not come across as a perfectionist because I so rarely attain anything even close to perfection but it is a standard I use to judge myself more harshly than others. I think I’ve been this way since I was a kid but you can ask my parents or brothers for confirmation. I thought I’d really dealt with it through years of counseling but in reading The Enneagram by Richard Rohr, I realize it’s something that I will probably always have in my life no matter how much I try to ignore it.

I was thinking about this the other day when I found toys put away in the wrong bucket and a Fireman Sam figurine attached to my door with a pipe cleaner and muddy footprints everywhere. It was one of those days when the sun hits the floor at just the right angle and all the dust and dog hair and tiny pompoms from some craft are lit up and all I wanted to do was vacuum. I was reminded of the scene in Arrested Development where Buster throws the dust buster at the bus because he thinks it’s Lupe, the housekeeper’s favorite toy and she is leaving. I am confident if you asked my children what my favorite toy is they would say the dust buster. Having tiny humans is teaching me a lot about myself and it’s not always pretty. But it is beautiful.

For someone who has always been angry at herself for not measuring up, having a four year old boy is the best albeit painful medicine. He says things like “Mom, remember I’m perfect, just for me?” and makes me cry while he just sits there and looks at me like I’m crazy. Sometimes I find one of his many inventions (usually involving my stuff) and am able to marvel at the creativity held in his little brain. Nothing is ever what it was created to be for my oldest. He borrowed two combs one day to pretend they were planes despite the fact that he owns toy planes that came in boxes that read “Planes” on the side and were made to be planes. I always say we could just skip buying toys and hand him the recycling bin because it would make him happiest. Nothing is ever safe from his imagination.

I would not have described myself as a concrete thinker until Forest turned three. I would have, in fact, described myself as very creative. I like to do creative things- sew, draw, paint, knit. But I am positively rigid in my outlook compared to this kid. For each time I step back and marvel as his imagination, like a good mom would, there are at least four times when I yell “This is a tool! Not a toy!” because he has taken the hardware I needed to assemble an IKEA table and turned it into cars or taken my whisk to be some sort of sword. I wish every day was like an Ann Voskamp book about seeing the beauty all around but you know what? Some days it is hard for this perfectionist to find pipe cleaners entwined like a nest in her living room lamps.

All that to say, my son is teaching me a lot about myself. I finish vacuuming and find one last tiny animal left over from playing “Pirate Dinosaurs” and am reminded of the little boy in the Kathleen Norris essay “My Messy House.” He wrecks his house and his town and writes “Then I sit in my messy house and say to myself, ‘I shouldn’t have done all that.’” I never feel better after one of these angry cleaning sessions. I mean, superficially I do because come on, no more dog hair! But it is like someone is holding a mirror up to my ugliest side, especially when my son just looks at me like I’ve destroyed the Taj Mahal. I sit in my clean house and think, “I shouldn’t have done all that.”

It is so good for me to be his mom. I knew parenting meant I would influence the lives of my children but I hadn’t really considered that I would be more changed by them. When my daughter was born, I came across this quote that I try to remember when I look at my children and especially when I look at the mess.

“I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle. You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you.”

― Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

Vote Early. Vote Often.

I went to the furniture store yesterday because we need a tv stand. I had an ultrasound scheduled for forty-five minutes after I entered the store. I knew which stand I wanted to order and which colors we wanted so I assumed it would be fast. The order itself was fast by Swiss standards but the gentleman behind the counter really wanted to chat. He asked where I was from, how long we’d lived in Switzerland, why we moved, and if we liked it. I’ve gotten used to these questions and have standard answers. For example, I always say we moved from Texas because it is more well known than Virginia (Europeans can at least find it on a map) and makes for a good conversation starter. They generally say, “Oh yes, horses and cowboys.” But, a new question has started popping up and I’ve come to sort of dread it. “You’re an American. Tell me, what do you think about…” and I know what’s coming. It’s rare they ask about our response to the refugee crisis or why we are loud or why we have drive throughs for everything. Right now, this question is always about Donald Trump. What do you think about Donald Trump? This is what people think about when they think about America.

Now, without divulging my own politics, because that is not helpful, I will admit I enjoy following politics. I love to vote. I was once late to my own birthday party because I had to vote in a city council election. I find our election cycles interesting and this one has been more entertaining and puzzling than usual. I mean, who has ever even heard of a contested convention outside of an Introduction to Political Science class? The world is watching and like many of us, is absolutely bewildered.

American elections are unlike Swiss elections (or any elections). The Swiss vote often- four times a year. Generally they vote on referenda- some boring and some very exciting. Recently they voted on whether or not to deport non-citizens for committing minor crimes. I thought it probably wouldn’t pass but I was ready to pack my bags. I mean I get a speeding ticket every week here. I’d be at the top of the list for deportation, especially if you count all of my recycling sorting offenses. And losing my dog. Geez. By the way, the referendum did not pass- we are safe for now. They also vote for elected officials every four years and there’s always some kind of local election for city council or something. But, here’s the difference. The process is maybe a month long? There are some party representatives at the farmer’s market who pass out balloons to children and postcards to the adults. They are allowed to put out posters a few weeks in advance of voting. It’s very civilized and does not affect us much. Don’t even get me started on the difference in spending. I mean, how much could balloons and a few posters cost? I bet children’s birthday parties cost more.

This election in America has been going on forever- actually since this time last year. I had one friend point out it seemed to make sense to declare your candidacy in March were the election in November (of that year) but instead we’ve had people running for a year and we’re not even to the general election yet. I wish all you had to do was accept a balloon and a postcard. The rhetoric and advertising has pervaded American culture. I’m actually really grateful to not live in the US right now. I don’t know how you keep it from affecting your children.

Now, I understand that Switzerland has about as many people as New York City. Maybe less. It’s easier here to reach out to voters and spread the word about your candidacy or issue. But American elections are out of control. As my friend the furniture man said, “It’s much more entertaining than French politics or Swiss politics. I mean, our campaigns are so boring.” I’m not sure that electing the leader of the free world should be entertaining. It reminds me of American Idol and gladiators and other spectacles.

America does hold a special place in the world. Other countries look to us. Maybe we should go back to boring. Our elections have been interesting enough in the past. My buddy from the furniture store went on and on about how inspiring it was that we elected the first African-American president and might elect a female president. “France is still racist and sexist and we look to America and think, if they can do it, maybe we can do it too.” He even mentioned his daughters and how inspiring it is that a woman is running for President.

Say what you want about Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders or Ted Cruz. American elections are not reflecting well on us. So, please, next time, make my life easier and don’t nominate anyone too out there. I really don’t have time to explain the American electorate to every Swiss and French person I meet. I’d rather explain the great state of Texas or teach them how to find Virginia on a map.

Reading without Subways

I don’t know that I would always have defined myself as a “reader” but in the past five years, it is quickly becoming one of the hats I wear and love. When people ask me my hobbies, reading is the first one I mention. My husband teases me that in my ideal future, I would be very content as an 80 year old woman who just rides the New York subway and reads books all day. He is not wrong.

Books and reading are one way I remember I’m an adult with a brain. Sometimes after the 89th reenactment of Fireman Sam saving the day or the 3rd poopy diaper, I forget that I like to think and like to learn. I get frustrated and feel a little trapped. Reading is my favorite way of learning. On a side note, Bill Gates agrees with me.

So, since I last posted about books, I have read another mystery series- The Gaslight Mysteries based in turn of the century New York City with a great female protagonist, Sarah Brandt. They are not too dark and not too challenging, which is good for someone who is just trying to get through morning sickness and pregnancy insomnia.

But I’ve also read some other books, four in particular that I loved. No two of which are alike, which may have added to my enjoyment of them.

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson was recommended by a few friends and John Grisham (in a magazine article). I was so moved by the book that I gave it to all my family members for Christmas. This is an important book that looks at our criminal justice system, how it disadvantages entire communities and the very hard work that a small group of people are doing to change it. I wept at night while reading it and despite the tough topic, found myself hopeful at the end of it, as well as convicted about what I can do to help. I truly believe everyone should read this book.

The Tears of Dark Water by Corban Addison was another favorite. I always love his books- A Walk Across the Sun brought the issue of human trafficking to my attention and The Tears of Dark Water was similar. I could not put this book down and it made me look at the plot from lots of different perspectives. Detailed, compelling and beautiful, I was transported to a land halfway around the world that is radically different from where I live.

Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart was recommended by the NPR Book Concierge, an app I plan to use more often. I loved this story of Constance Kopp and her sisters, women who did not fit the mold in 1914, who rather than running and hiding from trouble face it head on. Each of the characters made me laugh and I found myself smiling at their antics and impressed with their courage.

And lastly, if there were such a thing as a reading hero, mine would be Kristen Robbins Warren, my former roommate and all-star middle school teacher in Brooklyn. I read her blog, A Kind of Library, regularly and love her reviews and recommendations. Recently, she recommended Hunting and Gathering by Anna Galvada, a French novel, translated into English (I’m not quite that good at French yet) about two lonely characters who find one another and gather a group of misfits to create their own place of belonging and home. The language is beautiful and I had a lot of fun recognizing many of the cultural references and general attitudes. The book is, as Kristin says, a micro-issue book, looking at how we find one another, connect with one another and create belonging.

Read them. Love them. Hate them. Let me know.

What to Read when You are Depressed

So my blog post about depression took a lot out of me. I don’t mind sharing about my depression and OCD and obviously I want people to read what I write but as soon as I published the post I thought, oh wow, now more people know my stuff. And I kind of didn’t know what to write about next. I did not intend to make this blog about mental illness and I don’t think it will permanently stay in that category. But, I heard back from my friend and she asked a really good question. And I realized I have more to say and really wish someone had written this blog post for me. So here it is.

My friend wrote me and asked about my faith. She said, “It’s as if [God’s] left me all alone but is relevant in so many other people’s lives. Any advice?” Ugh. Tough, right? And yes, I know that feeling well. I think even people who are not depressed struggle with this question. Why are other people so happy or so confident and I am not? Am I alone? And so I wanted to write another follow up post about being a Christian and being a depressed person. It is hard to deal with sometimes and not made easier by some of the things my fellow Christians said. Things like, “But the joy of the Lord is our strength” (apparently from somewhere in the Bible) “What unconfessed sin do you have in your life?” (yeah, for real someone asked me that) and another favorite, “Just pray more.”

Here are some things I have learned: My faith is not my feelings. Rather, God is not based on how I feel about him. I had to do a lot of work separating my beliefs from my feelings. I may have gone too far since I haven’t had a lot of emotional religious experiences since then but as someone who grew up in an evangelical church, I think I’ve had more than my share. 

I don’t really have a lot of the answers but I found a lot of comfort in books, especially books written by other people who have had these questions. I found three or four books to be particularly relevant and encouraging while I was depressed.

  1. Disappointment with God by Philip Yancey– The title is somewhat explanatory but the book deals with what to do when you feel let down by God. Yancey has had plenty of experience with this and addresses it in a gentle, easy, non-judgmental way. One of my favorite points of the book was about leprosy. Stay with me. People who have leprosy lose the ability to experience pain. Because of this they are at a higher risk of hurting themselves. Yancey’s point is this- pain is a gift because it means we can still feel. It might sound like a cop out but I found my depression to be a gift as I said before because it means I am still alive internally.
  2. Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott– This book was one that showed me how to reconcile some of my thoughts about the world with my faith. Lamott is funny and dry and real. Her understanding of God’s love for the whole world and particularly for broken people helped me as someone who felt she had it all together and then lost it. I mourned what I had lost (my perfect grades, achievements, etc) until I read this book and then began to see that maybe I should rejoice in what I found (a heart for other people, humility, sensitivity, vulnerability).
  3. The winner of all books for depressed people in my opinion- The Inner Voice of Love by Henri Nouwen. A Catholic priest who left his post at Harvard Divinity School to work with the developmentally and mentally disabled at L’Arche in Canada. He kept a journal of spiritual mandates for himself while he went through a major depressive period. He published this journal and I found it on the bookshelf at our church. It had a nice cover and so I picked it up. My mom actually read it in one night and then told me, “You have to read this. It’s written for you.” I have never before or since connected with a book on such a deep level. My favorite message in the world of “You alone are enough” or “You’re never enough,” is this: “God loves you and his love is enough.” Done. I think that sums it up for me.

And as a special bonus for people who struggle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or who love someone who struggles with OCD, I recommend The Imp of the Mind. I have trouble explaining what OCD is like. Yes, it can be a lot of compulsions, like washing hands, checking locks, repeating rituals. But there’s another insidious side to it that resides just internally. Like everyone, people with OCD have intrusive thoughts but unlike other people, we cannot ignore them. They play over and over in our minds and become obsessions. This book more than any other has given me words and metaphors for my OCD. It also helped me feel less alone once I realized there is a group of people (even if it is small) who also have these cycles.

I know depression and mental illness are unique to each person. You may have walked away from the church because of your illness. You may have joined the church because of yours. You may have started a church because of it. I know how personal it is. This is not meant to be a fix-all or some sort of solution. Just a couple of suggestions from someone who’s been there too.