Expat Living, Learnings
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2017 Lessons in humility

I’m not usually partial to end-of-year reminiscences. I’ve never been good with dates or places or names. I have more emotional memory than factual memory, and the year’s bookends always seemed to mark an arbitrary container for the greater ebbs and flows.  Appropriately, it’s nearly February and here I am considering 2017 and its lessons. For me, they boil down to an essential reduction of self, a modesty injected.

spa buckets

The swearing in of a dangerous clown in the highest office of my home country brought a disorienting and stunning humility to those who thought we were better, collectively, than him. Let us hope that his tenure ultimately renders more good than evil by revealing truths to us about ourselves and about the threads of our culture that require urgent improvement: more listening, more acknowledgement, more frequent struggle on behalf of our neighbors, finding the strength to heal and be healed as brethren on our super-sized island. May we improve upon our daring and blindly selfish Manifest Destiny in order to draw in, value, and raise up the least cared for and the marginalized.

japan eye

The year also brought a whittling of the self, especially a recognition of my limits. I’ve spoken to friends from overseas about the very (though not uniquely) American imperative to push farther, improve incessantly, to best oneself in all ways. In the speedy tumult of early growth perhaps this formula makes for success but, untempered by discipline and the wisdom of a steady pace, it’s also a formula for regular disappointment, if not catastrophe. While I’m still working to mitigate the sense of failure that so often accompanies lesser results, I’ve mellowed (mostly) into satisfaction with the talents and habits that suit me, acknowledging those skills I will probably never own, and also those that I’d like to pursue regardless, mastery notwithstanding.

zebra shop

Humility is also revealed in our dependence on community. No matter how much I value self-reliance I cannot, alone, sustain myself. Even the most solitary among us need to connect, occasionally, for comfort, or validation, or sanity. In 2018 I expect to reach the five-year mark since I left home with an appetite for professional and personal adventure. On this near-anniversary I can say unequivocally that home, a sense of place, has become an essential need that I crave increasingly. Yet, at the same time, it becomes more elusive; I’m not sure exactly where home is anymore, or how to get there.


So I cling to my community, rendered digitally given the distance, with fervor. A friend in a cross-continental Whatsapp conversation mentioned recently that though it was night in New York City, she’d like to sit in my kitchen while I made breakfast at that same moment. It occurred to me that within a few years she may be able to beam her hologram right in, and we will visualize each other as though we were together. While an exciting prospect, it saddened me because it’s not actually enough; the distance would still cast a shadow. What matters are the earnest embraces of greetings and farewells, the unique infusion of scents that accompany the people you love, the sparks of energy that scatter with their laughter, the loving gaze of those who know your story and bear witness to the triumphant and crushing steps on your upward spiral. While living overseas amplifies the magic of those moments it also rarefies them, detaching you even when you most need them.


Paradoxically, I’ve never felt more at home in my body, and yet I’m compelled to conceal it along with aspects of my personality fundamental to my sense of self, in order to get along in a place where I don’t, frankly, belong. Hargeisa has graciously accepted me and my unusual family, and I’ve done my best to acclimate to and accommodate it in awareness of my rank: foreigner, outsider, inevitable maker of faux pas, guest. But the daily practice of trying to fit my round peg into a square hole, so to speak, has worn me down as it does to each of us, to differing degrees, who desire acceptance by an aspirational group. I feel compelled to decide whether to get out or to dig in deeper, but it’s not my choice alone; this one involves newly-minted family and calculations of best outcomes for the group. I can’t name my next steps nor see them clearly, but I try to have faith that they will surface at the right moment, and that I’ll notice them.


Time expands beyond the moment to the far reaches of age where, if I’m lucky, I’ll look back fondly on slow walks down the stairs, on the lines of schoolgirls in long, bright yellow hijabs like flocks of canaries, on the hot stacks of loxoox in the kitchen each morning, on the frigid hop from bed to closet on winter mornings. I think about my aged years as though I’m already there, ruminating over a life well lived or not, observing wrinkled, spotted hands, remembering when they were smoother, tighter, and when I took them for granted. I feel fullness, and a gentle longing, and fullness again.

temple red

Indeed, I find myself reckoning with age in body and mind. I forget where I put things only a moment before. I sit too long in one position and my joints rebel, my knees rendering me immobile until they’re satisfied I’ve learned my lesson. One fried thing on top of one dairy thing on top of one other thing and there’s a fire lit within my chest. Despite these physical signals, I’m more interested in age and the march home, slow and pleasant if we’re fortunate, as a tool of appreciation. I’ve enjoyed a veritable shedding of many things that don’t, in the end, matter much. My ego has raised a white flag to the inevitabilities of the universe: you win.


Lastly, and having embraced humility anew, I wish to be more often uninterrupted in the coming year. The visceral impact of so much gross violence in 2017—the physical and the structural—represented and echoed in news and social media and in daily life, is taking its toll. I wish to be more often continuous, to enjoy long and luxurious stretches of existing in full, of living in the glow of self-acceptance. I wish to be less interrupted by The Framework, by the patriarchy, by my own relentless judgments. Women, in particular, carve out pockets of ourselves, our flesh, our intelligence, our creativity, to accommodate others; we punctuate ourselves to make space for others, often without realizing it. I wish, instead, to walk down the street uninhibited, protruding, baring my essence and vulnerabilities from hip to hip, synapse to synapse, breath to breath. And acknowledging the same in others, making my way towards home, wherever that is, surrounded by witnesses to this path.

Here’s to an old you and a new day—Happy New Year.


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