prepare for liftoff: culture shock

In 2010, I spent three weeks in Puebla, Mexico to finish up my master’s program in ESL. Amid ancient cathedrals and extensive teaching units and luxurious welcomes and late-night plaza dancing and studious students and chocolaty mole dishes and open air markets, I found myself–in the air conditioned safety of my hotel room–having a meltdown. My skin crawled. I was overwhelmed with exhaustion. My brain was tangled between two languages. My body felt like it was walking in the twilight zone. My heart ached for home… for comfort, for ease, for freedom from having to work so damn hard to understand the mere basics of life.

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Culture shock.

I can’t help but reflect on that experience as we prepare to move 5,769 miles south to Brazil.

Like the naive American expat I am, I have been predicting the layers of culture shock and in what order they will fall.

  • First: school culture. One of the reasons I am changing student demographics is because over the last ten years teaching, I have felt my pedagogical craft dwindle more and more into the realm of motivational therapy. In each of the three schools I have taught, I have spent the first year there working my way into the hearts and trust of students; if not, there would be no learning. And though that is exactly where I want to dwell, and also where students remain forever with me, it is utterly exhausting to pour the entire contents of your identity out over and over and over and over, just hoping it will stick. (And of course, I do not in anyway blame the students. I blame their trauma and the system, but that is another post.) When interviewing for my new job, one of the questions the superintendent asked me was: “What are you most nervous about?” To which, I responded: “Having to win over another group of students.” He looked at me, quizzically, and then followed with a statement: “Oh, you won’t have to worry about that; Brazilians are so warm and welcoming. They will love you from day one.” Talk about a foreign language. Huh? Additionally, I have spent the last ten years convincing students what they can do: overcome society’s low expectations, overcome their neighborhood’s low expectations, overcome the school’s low expectations, overcome their own low expectations. Now, I wonder how much of my job is going to be convincing students of what they do not have to do: be perfect, pile it on, extend their resumes from two to three pages, add one more club, avoid mistakes, look a certain way, do it all. I have felt my calling the last ten years as one of inspiration; and now, I think it will be more aligned with the archaic definition: giving students the space to breath.
  • Second, city culture. This feels even more poignant as I have spent the last couple of weeks before departing the country in the country. In the mornings, we sit on the porch and watch the circus-squirrels fly from tree to tree and comically climb up (or fall down) a slinky to get to the bird feeder. We sit on the porch and listen to the echo of morning doves and the call of cardinals and the squelch of black birds. We sit on the porch and watch the sunlight dance in and out of shade. We sit on the porch and feel the caress of the wind. We sit on the porch and rest in the peace of nature. We did that in Evergreen, too. And now, we are moving to the straight. up. city. High rises and traffic and airports and favelas and exhaust and pigeon poop and sirens and constant lights… well, I don’t know what else, because we’ve never done it before.
  • Then, third, Brazilian culture. In Mexico, I could manage the language. But Portuguese? And what am I going to wear on a very-liberal-almost-naked beach? How do I pay in a currency I can barely pronounce? Am I going to be just another fat American? How do I get my prescriptions refilled? How do I follow along in a foreign workout class? Am I going to stick out like a sore thumb? What if I cling my forks on the plate in a restaurant? What other faux pas am I going to commit before I even realize what a faux pas is? (And how do you say that? And is there a word for that in Portuguese?) How do I find someone reliable to wax my privates? What if we can’t even find our way out of the airport? What if they think my anxiety-reducing-poop-provoking-magnesium-powder is crack? The more question marks I type, the more I think this actually might be the first after all.

If I’ve learned anything from my meditation practice, it is that 1, what we avoid, expands and 2, by naming it, something loses its grip. And so, this post.

I will welcome culture shock by its name, a guest to the party of adventure.

homelessness: the space between

One month ago yesterday, with weight in our eyes and wings in our hearts, Dave and I handed over the keys to our beloved home’s new owner. Since then, we have slept in five different hotels, two different AirBnB’s, and one cottage across a total of eight states. This does not count the many other nights throughout June we spent sleeping on our best friends’ floor on an air mattress, floating, unanchored in a homeless sky.

The transition has been sloppily packaged, wrapped in soft cloth of denial. Our friends shared private glances, eyes asking the question Dave and I did a subtle and private dance of avoiding: “When are they going to pack?” Scattered all over their house were our belongings: laundry baskets and suitcases and toiletries and bins and boxes of tissues and dirty clothes and books and phone chargers and remaining kitchen goods, knuckled roots of a thirsty tree expanding wide, a deep ache for soil and earth.

I write this as we make the cross-country drive: Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois. There are goodbyes to be had there, too. However, there is no home to which I return. Even in the place I was born, I am homeless. In the GPS of my heart, there is a void where my parents used to be, where my sister used to be.

We look forward to the peace and quiet and stillness of Dave’s parents’ home. There, we will find air and sun and moisture to nurture our transplanted roots. But, still, we will be homeless, hovering between here and there, then and now.

On the 22nd of this month, we will walk into our new place, a beautiful and modern two-story apartment that overlooks the juxtaposition of verdant trees and steely high rises, a cityscape version of a middle school dance.

Then, we will be home.

Until then, even then, I will breath in and out, grounded in that which never changes: Presence.

 

dynamic

Yesterday, Dave and I–along with our best friends the Boyds–explored Glacier National Park. A short jaunt around John’s Lake ended alongside the “dynamic McDonald Falls,” as described by some hiking guru’s map we bought for $11.95 at the gift shop. I imagined loud, obnoxious, energetic water motion–kinda like when I call myself a dynamic teacher. Upon arrival, that was exactly what we encountered. However, when our friends mentioned that the last time they were at these very same falls “it was merely a trickle,” realization dawned on me as to how Jake-the-hiking-guru was actually using the word dynamic:

dynamic: marked by usually continuous and productivity of activity or change

And sitting in meditation beside the dynamic McDonald Falls, I could not help but reflect on our lives. Sometimes still like John’s lake, sometimes a trickle like the McDonald Falls of the Boyds’ first trip, and sometimes–as in now–the powerful and overwhelming current of change forcefully charging downstream.

dynamic: marked by usually continuous and productivity of activity or change

As we are currently homeless and bound for Brazildynamic now holds deeper meaning for us. On July 22nd, we will depart the country and abandon everything that has been familiar in exchange for new lives as expats. Dave will not work. I will work in a completely different environment. And we will live in the city, gasp. And just as the raging current shapes storied-alcoves out of rocks, something new will form in us.

Something mysterious.

Something beautiful.

A new story formed by the dynamic watery wheels of change.

breath. earth.

Lately I’ve been stepping on a lot of crap–cords and belts and shoes and brooms and oh, there’s my underwear. This is because the beloved chipping-green-and-red-refuge we’ve called home for the past eight years is currently in the process of being dismantled and divided and donated as we prepare for our adventure to Brazil. I’ve gone to heat water forgetting the microwave is sold; I’ve gone to eat takeout on the plates currently in our friends’ homes; I’ve gone to sit at the table that’s no longer there. We are living in a construction zone: the construction of a new life.

Breathing in. Breathing out. I am grounded.

I am in the process of some heavy goodbyes. Students–who have had way too many people come and go in their lives–asking: Why does everyone leave us? Colleagues who have become friends. Friends who have become family. Family who will become foreigners. Not to mention, the scariest goodbye of all: the adios to urban education–or life as I know it. I wonder if it will be forever. I wonder if there will be regret. I wonder if I’ll be effective with a different population. I wonder how my identity will change.

Breathing in. Breathing out. I am grounded.

We hover near a cliff with unknown horizons. Questions float by like clouds shadowing the reddened landscape. Who will our friends be? How hard will it be to learn the language? What if sickness strikes? What if we hate living in a city? What happens if there is a financial crisis? And dear me, how am I going to look in a swimsuit on a beach in Brazil?!

Breathing in. Breathing out. I am grounded.

Tonight I meditated. As I have done daily for the past four months and twenty-five days. (If you do not have Insight Timer, download. it. now.)  As I was guided into my emotions, a sense of being overwhelmed rose to greet me. It was not the overwhelmed of Mary past. It was different. I am different. It showed itself as a coiled spring, loaded low to the earth with heavy weights. But beneath those compact spirals, a palpable sense of excitement breathed. A readiness to spring forth into something new and exciting and refreshing. An eagerness for expansion and space and adventure. An embrace of joy and hope.

Breathing in. Breathing out. I am grounded.

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sanctifying space for closure

May brings showers, raindrops of tears that roll down the cheeks as I say goodbye and best wishes to students who have melded into the tissue of my heart. And without the protection of umbrella or raincoat, I run directly into the impending storm clouds of emotions. I dance in the rain because I need closure. I dance in the rain because I know my students need closure.

I work with students who are often dealing with trauma of some sort: poverty, abuse, violence, homelessness, illegal status, witness to crimes, gangs, addiction, broken homes and shattered dreams…weights pile atop their shoulders. With trauma comes ambiguity, abrupt endings that bleed into frail beginnings all tainted with confusion and unanswered questions. Always on alert, students who have suffered trauma cannot regulate their emotions:

Shields and Cicchetti suggest that hypervigilance may play a key role in undermining the development of emotional self-regulation. They postulate that, unlike the nontraumatized child, the hypervigilant child cannot shift away from distressing cues in the service of maintaining emotional regulation.

As not only an academic content teacher but a safe-haven-guardian, I need to create the space in my classroom for students to safely regulate (identify, embrace, express purposefully) their emotions…especially as we near a conclusive separation. After all, I have spent the entire year loving my students into greatness, and such a relationship cannot just snap without the time and place to say goodbye and thank you and good luck and I love you and see you on Facebook. So much of their lives is spent with things or people they care about abruptly falling into an abyss; I need to model the ability to say goodbye as an empowerment for smooth transitions instead of a series of sudden fractures. By building the space for closure and modeling goodbyes, I teach my students the language of emotions–not avoidance or hypervigilance, but leveraging emotions for their betterment:

Trauma often impairs the ability of children to use words and pictures to identify their feelings. Children who have trouble using language to communicate emotions cannot always “formulate a flexible response” to situations and may react impulsively. Learning to identify and articulate emotions will help them regulate their reactions.

Closure is not easy, especially in a society that prides itself in ignoring emotions for the sake of independence and/or productivity. But more than ever, it is critical that I both teach and model for my students the ability to transition gracefully, to choose how they say goodbye rather than having it afflicted upon them as one more traumatic event.

And so I design ceremonies in order to sanctify space for closure in my classes. Food parties. Reflection projects. Card signing. Verbal storytelling. Gifts. Personal mementos. And once I’ve done it with the seniors who leave next week, I’ll break my heart all over again for the freshman to whom I also have to say goodbye this year so that they can also have closure.

The rain pours down from closure’s clouds and steals my breath and dirties the hem of my pants and blurs my vision; it is soul-soaking.


But after the rain, the glorious aftermath. The way the sun sparkles on one lingering raindrop on a leaf. The smell of newness. The opening of a flower that is no longer thirsty. The parting of the clouds to reveal Heaven’s smiles.  The hope that hangs on the air.

My students deserve that.

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