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Saturday, March 25, 2017

To Belong

Just finished 3 days at FIGT, a conference that I had the privilege to go to for the first time in my life. It sounds like it's been around for quite a while, at least 10 years, from what I heard some of the other attendees saying. Just like any other experience in life, I started out feeling excited yet somewhat nervous about what it would be like. I came in quietly, observing, and dreading the many tea breaks when the mostly-female group would converge on snacks and hot drinks, chatting to old friends and meeting new. A "New Attendee" sticker on my name tag made me stick out even more.

My initial impression was that there wasn't as much TCKness as I had been expecting. I hadn't spent too much time studying FIGTs target audience, so while I was indeed one of them, being a TCK, there were many more who fell into their group, including expat spouses, global nomads, or families preparing to go overseas for the first time who had perhaps been involved in international work of some sort, such as my friend Lisa who had been directing a sports program geared towards international school children.

The first morning, after managing to get on the wrong tram and having to backtrack at the next station, I found myself in a large very empty hall, waiting to go through a full dress rehearsal for our IGNITE! session the following day. Lisa F, our very cheerful coordinator, was busily rounding up everyone and going over last minute microphone adjustments with the AV guys. I sat quietly in the back of the room, nervously going over my speech one last time while studying the five other female presenters at the front of the room. They were either older and more mature or more charismatic than me and I felt somewhat intimidated. I tried to remind myself that my message was equally as important as theirs but wasn't convinced.

Soon Lisa called us up and went over the basics. Then we went right into the rehearsal. I hadn't paid attention to the order of speakers so was blissfully unaware of when I was presenting. Suddenly, my name appeared on the what-seemed-like 50-foot high screen. I stepped onto the stage and began my talk. It was disastrous.

Okay, not completely disastrous but I stumbled through the end feeling even more nervous than before. The 6-person audience smiled encouragingly at me, while Lisa said to be sure to speak up a little louder on the day as my voice was too soft in certain parts. I'd been memorizing my speech the past week or so, but wasn't prepared for a screen prompter, which distracted me as I ended up looking at the floor while reading the slides instead of looking at the audience and reciting my speech. That, combined with my attempt to hold a cordless microphone in my right hand and flip my miniature index cards with my left, while scanning the audience and trying to remember to emotively deliver the words was too much multi-tasking for me.

I spent the rest of the day memorizing my speech, using a technique my former choir director, Seth, had used to help us with the tricky bits of songs. I went over and over the cards I was struggling with, worked on linking them to previous cards, and then began to string together the speech back to front. I sat for an hour on a rustic hand-carved wooden bench for two in a secluded part of the famous Keukenhof and went over my 6.5 minute speech over and over. I'd realized that when I had a brain freeze, I couldn't carry on, so I worked on saying the entire speech even with mistakes, rather than stopping to correct myself. There was no time to repeat or hunt for words--the slides auto advanced every 20 seconds so it was a case of make it or break it.

In my room that night and the next morning, I practiced using my laptop, the kitchen counter, and my hairbrush as props. I placed the laptop on the floor as a makeshift screen prompter, placed my index cards on the counter so I could flip them over one by one rather than use one hand to move them behind each other, and held the hairbrush to my mouth as a pretend microphone. After three successful trial runs of the entire speech, I knew I was ready. It was then that I cried.

As I'd worked on my speech for the past month, while I was writing from my heart and my experience, I hadn't really allowed myself to feel the emotion that accompanied the charged words, such as intangible loss, reinventing identity, living between worlds, telling our story, and so on. I knew it would make a difference in how I spoke, but I also knew I couldn't afford to get emotional on the stage and risk losing time as I presented my important message.

When I realized that God had helped me to reach the point that I felt I had done all I could to prepare and had given me the ability to successfully memorize the speech, I got emotional. I got emotional as I realized I was about to deliver in just a few short minutes a distilling of my 36 years of life. This was my story. A story of loss, of identity, of reconciling, of integrating, of acceptance and relief in finding myself.

After we'd finished our presentations, Killian asked a question. How do you find returning has helped you find a place of belonging in yourself? I'd hoped I wouldn't get asked a question but this one I knew the answer to. I stepped confidently to the microphone, smiled, and said, That's a really good question. I then told him how returning, for me, validated who I was before. I found the touchstones of my past and they were now in my present, tangible and visible. Seeing them helped me relinquish the regret of leaving, so many years ago, when I didn't have the choice. This time I had the choice. . .to return. And so I did.

I ended my Ignite! by telling the audience I now live in Lebanon, which has been significant in integrating for me as I've been able to return to a place I found peace and joy and now call home. I encouraged them to return and I hope that Killian, Marilyn, and I won't be the only ones. I hope it won't take others more than 15 years to gather the courage, the money, or the motivation to go back. I don't know if it would have helped in my personal journey to return sooner. I don't know if I had to go through the fires of difficulty for that long so I could really appreciate the treasure of returning when I did.

When I lived in the US, I always looked forward to traveling back to familiar homes, and the Netherlands was no different, though I hadn't ever lived here for more than a couple of months at a time, usually during the summer when we came on furlough. This time, I found myself strangely surprised at the emotions that were tugging insistently. I didn't feel the same sense of coming home I had felt before. I missed my other home.

I missed two foot-high twin boys, my best friend's little tykes, with their infectious smiles and reaching baby arms wrapping around my legs so they could stand up or pulling me close so they could chew on my sweater's zipper. I missed sitting comfortably on the black faux leather armchair in my boss's office as we discussed how to solve the latest petty argument among colleagues or he told me stories about life. I missed stumbling through song service during Sabbath School, as I plonked away on the piano and prayed my tendency to go into autopilot while I played wouldn't lead to me making too many mistakes. I missed turning off all the lights in my room in the evening, leaving just the soft glow of the bedside table lamp on, and settling comfortably with a favourite book just before going to sleep. I missed sitting around the table at night, after the twins had gone to bed and my best friend's husband took a break from studies to join her and me for a cup of tea and a snack. I missed rushing into my classroom two minutes past the hour, still rubbing sleep from my eyes as four pairs of bright eyes looked back at me, ready to learn how to write. I missed the bitter taste of zaatar, the saltiness of jebne manaeesh, the crunch of sweet and sour tofu I adapted from a recipe I found online, and the plush taste of fresh mango juice. I missed waking up in the morning, excited for the adventure the day would bring, and going to sleep at night with a smile on my face.

Lisa did my quick intro, preparing the audience by letting them know we would be doing a switch emotionally to something a little more sober as the previous presenter had been quite engaging with good energy. Then Lisa was stepping down and I was stepping up onto the gray carpeted stage, several spotlights shining on me, the room filled with people dimly lit, I looked down at the screen prompter, saw my slide, and in that moment all 36 years coalesced into one aha moment.  

My Opa stood by the train tracks, huddled deep into his jacket in the cold Dutch winter. We'd snapped a quick photo together, I'd climbed on the train, and waved goodbye. I didn't realize it would be the last time I would see him. As we grow up, we learn quickly that to say goodbye is an expected part of life. We leave without a tear because we know, there will be many more goodbyes ahead.

I left FIGT just as I came. Quietly and without saying gooodbye. Yet I knew I wasn't leaving this time, as I had so many times before, without leaving a tangible imprint in the hearts of those who had heard my simple message, knit together through time. As I sat on the train, hurrying me through the Dutch countryside to the next part of my adventure, I smiled inside. Indeed, as I had told a crowd of people seeking to understand the TCK experience, I had found a place of belonging. It is in my heart.

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