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The Awkwardness of Holding Both, the Permission to Do It Anyway

There are thirty-one boxes of mine taking up real estate in my parents’ home, much to their protests. Isn’t that what inevitably happens when children grow into adults? They don’t have room at their place for sentimental keepsakes or items not needed at the moment, and so it all makes its way back to their parents’ basement.

In any event, I have boxes of all sizes sitting like pieces of Tetris on storage shelves there. I know the exact number because I counted and made a list the last time I was home. None of the boxes are opened. A brand new set of kitchen knives, baking dishes, blender, rice cooker, espresso maker, cheese grater, and more wait to be cut open, taken out, and used. Almost everything was bought with gift cards given to us when we got married four years ago and again as graduation gifts when my husband finished his master’s last year. 

It is there, deep in a basement in North Dakota, where our imaginary future lies—one we had envisioned together even before we got married. Those boxes were meant to be used in our life in the US, a sort of nest egg put together by bits and pieces over the years, representing our dream of a life no longer overseas: a Kitchen-aid mixer placed on the counter in a just-moved-in apartment, begging for someone to mix a batter of cookie dough; a spice rack filled with tiny glass jars, a colorful representation of our bicultural family; a coffee machine waiting to be brewed faithfully every morning. 

But then a travel ban happened, barring my husband from entering the US solely due to the passport he carried. It forced us to get married in a country that was home to neither of us, our lives coming to a screeching halt. During four years, deadbolt after deadbolt was installed and latched, pushing us further from our future. After the implosion of the US immigration system, we scrambled to find anything that might be a key. The dream of living in the US was a shore that drifted just out of reach, a place of refuge that we could never quite grasp. We remained in Turkey.

Over time, those boxes became buried under plastic totes filled with photos taken decades ago and other boxes containing childhood stuffed animals, Christmas decor, and china sets. My mom would add a cloth shower curtain, and my sister a picture frame and some coffee mugs, signs they hadn’t given up hope, even though our imaginary future began to collect dust. 

For so much of our marriage, we have been living in the short term. This is seen in how we’ve furnished our apartment in Turkey. Most things were bought second-hand or were used items passed on to us from friends. I can probably count on one hand how many items we purchased new and at full price. If we had to leave at a moment’s notice, we could easily shed this current life for the one we desired because none of the pieces held much sentimental or monetary value to us.

It took us well into our daughter’s first year of life before we even considered putting together a nursery for her. We had the spare room, that wasn’t the issue, but the emotional energy it took to put down even shallow roots was a lot. But as she neared her first birthday, we did it anyway. We needed to and she deserved a space of her own. We didn’t paint and we bought very little, if anything, new. This helped quell the sting of making our house a home here and not there. What was once a dream reserved for our life in the future, was altered to fit our life in the present.

***

The other night, Afshin and I sat on the floor of Esther’s room, getting her ready for bed, something we tag team each night. He was reading a book in Farsi to her, one where daddy animals kiss their babies. He read a line: “Daddy giraffe kisses his calf’s neck,” causing Esther to squeal and run around the room, anticipating kisses from her dad.

I sat cross-legged leaning up against the wardrobe with a sippy cup of warm milk in hand, watching as they finished up this part of the nightly routine. I must have had a strange look on my face because Afshin lifted his head from the floor where he was now laying, curious to know what I was thinking. The book had ended with smooches all over and somehow Esther had gotten herself on top of him, each leg straddling his stomach, no doubt retaliating for the kissing. If the effects of my husband’s life of displacement had touched her in any way, it didn’t show. She forced him to lay back down with a shove and a mischievous smile and continued bouncing. 

I didn’t know how to describe what I was thinking, watching my family play and laugh together in this room in the middle of Turkey. It was this realization that life was happening right here, right now. Our tiny family of three was all under one roof, growing and blossoming, making memories, and settling into a calm pattern. These are the good old days. I felt a pinprick of guilt needling its way in as soon as that thought crossed my mind, like, if I acknowledged that this moment was good—a joyful little morsel amid hardship—that it would somehow seem as if I’m dumping aside any hope for the future. 

When I do spot a sliver of delight while living here—whether it be posting a photo of our family on the beach or a video of us at a playground on a warm day—I’m met with well-intentioned friends commenting on how it seems we are blooming where we are planted or how we’ve let God use us in this hard season. I cringe at these comments. Is this what our life looks like from the outside?

I think of how one-half of my family is living in displacement. When I post videos of our weekend vacation, what people don’t see is the stress it took to make that happen. No one sees the permission my husband had to get from the police to leave our province—something never guaranteed for a refugee and is a stark reminder that they have no rights here. My mother-in-law applied three times and got denied each time. No reason was given as to why and she had to stay behind. There was also the stress of evading police check points along the way to the beach. Police are notoriously fickle, even with the right papers, and could send my husband back to our city at any point. No one sees how he’s missing half an eyebrow in those seaside pictures—an outward sign of how he copes with the inward turmoil and trauma of being displaced.

Blooming we are not.

It takes a special kind of privilege to be able to bloom where you are planted, to grow and thrive and accept your circumstances. In fact, you cannot bloom where you are planted if your feet are being violently forced into the ground by great powers above you. You cannot bloom where you are planted if the soil is poor and shallow.

What good is a weekend vacation when the waiting is indefinite and no country wants you? To make someone wait indefinitely is one of the most twisted abuses of power, is it not? This is the life of a refugee.

And this is the source of my guilt.

***

Every day after her nap, Esther and I walk to the park behind our home. It was unusually windy this particular afternoon, while we squatted under a group of trees, examining the dried leaves already on the ground. Autumn had made itself known and the trees were a smattering of golds and scarlets that weren’t there a week ago. 

We fell into a simple game of me picking out a leaf (the crunchier the better) for Esther, where she then crushed it in her hand and disposed of the little pieces in a pile by her feet. Back and forth we went. But we’d stop our game each time the wind picked up. The already fragile leaves clinging desperately to their branches could not withstand the gusts of wind, causing a flurry of color to rain down around us. The leaves came alive, collectively chattering as they skittered across the pavement, creating a welcome mat on the ground for the coming colder, barren months.

I’m not one to use the word “magical” to describe everyday things often, but I’d use that word now. To watch my child’s eyes in wonderment, her hands outstretched, as a great whirlwind of leaves circled us, was magic. 

Maybe this was autumn’s way of laughing even though it was grieving summer’s end. Maybe each time the wind picked up, the swirl of leaves, dropping like pieces of confetti, was a gift from a season before and a gift for a season to come. 

Whatever it was, I found myself thinking those guilt-drenched words again: These are the good old days.

It takes a lot to face this monster head-on and shout that the good and the beautiful are happening right now. But I’m learning I can spot a sliver of good now while still honoring the grief I carry for our imaginary future. My hope for a life beyond this one still clings to me, like a child to his mother’s hem. Those thirty-one boxes aren’t going anywhere. They’re stacked in a basement an ocean away, waiting for our homecoming—a gift for a season to come.

Looking for the good doesn’t mean you’re blooming or that you’ve given up hope for a better tomorrow. It may mean you’re only surviving, remaining dormant until conditions change. Like the crunchy leaves raining down on us, it may look like a tiny spark of magic in a desolate season.

It feels scary to acknowledge the good during the hard, but here’s your permission to do it anyway. May we not overlook the magic in the everyday as we stretch our eyes forward. But may we also not lose hope for a future safe and secure. 

Hold both the good and the hard in all their discomfort and awkwardness. I’ll do the same. While yearning for a world that has yet to exist, we’ll be over here, making room for delight to thread its way in.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

This post is part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to view the next post in the series “Unmasking Fears”.

2 thoughts on “The Awkwardness of Holding Both, the Permission to Do It Anyway”

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