FIGT 2016 – Lesson I: Nakedness, Empathy, and Letters Never Arrived
Last year, it was only four weeks after FIGT 2015 that I finally found the time to write about what I had learned from the conference. Fast forward a year later, and I find myself in the same place, listening to the same wonderful waterfall and stream passing in front of our garden in our (rented) Italy house.
Our daughters watching the stream past our Italy house
Our daughters enjoyed our time here last year so much, that we decided to return this spring break. We didn’t mind their choice of a beautiful old mill nestled away in the Tuscan hills among wineries and quick drives away to Florence, Siena, and Arezzo.
It has become a bit of a mission for me to share what the FIGT conferences have given me, because they have enriched my life so much. Here I find myself wondering again how to put into words everything I learned in one post. After looking at my notes, I quickly realize that one post won’t be enough. So, over the next couple of months, I will try to write a few which will hopefully spur me on to write more than one blog post before next year.
This past fall, I was incredibly grateful that Chris O’Shaughnessy came to speak at our school this year. For an entire day, I was his host while he spoke to parents, staff and three different student age groups. Chris joked that I might get a little bored of hearing the same stories, but not for a minute.
I was thrilled to hear he was the opening keynote speaker at FIGT 2016. As expected, he had the room in tears of laughter within a few minutes but also struck chords in everyone’s hearts. He reminded us that we are all storytellers and that we can empathize through stories and be moved by other people feelings. However, we are losing the ability to use the language that empathy is based on.
Writing has been part of me as long as I can remember, but I have always been very (self-)conscious of the possibility that there will probably always be an audience in some shape or form. This fact was confirmed when I stumbled upon one of my grandmother’s diaries in the attic one day and wondered if she had considered that her granddaughter would read her deepest, darkest thoughts.
When I was eleven, my other grandmother passed away and I started an unfinished biography of her, trying to hold on to her. Anything I wrote did not quite compare to her storytelling though and I eventually abandoned the project.
As I turned into a self-absorbed teenager, I kept writing. I laid my soul bare in journals. However, the idea that someone (my own granddaughter perhaps?) might read them one day started to terrify me.
What if someone saw me in my written nakedness? My fears, my hopes, my crushes, my fantasies, the whole me I had not even begun to figure out. The depths of my teenage soul was angst ridden by the idea of being seen. And even more terrifying, to be seen but not to be heard or understood.
My fifth grade teacher turned friend, Anja, had given me a perfect solution. She suggested that instead of keeping a journal, I could write letters to myself, to open one day when I would be ready to read them again. She offered to be the keeper of my unopened envelopes. For the next five (or maybe even ten, I cannot remember) I sent her letters.
Finally, at the ripe age of 34, I was ready to read them, to understand myself a bit better. I also had come to terms that the depths of my soul were not that interesting for anybody else to read.
“Could you please send me my letters? I think I am ready for them,” I told Anja enthusiastically during a phone conversation between Aruba (me) and the Netherlands (Anja) a little over five years ago.
“Of course. Which address would you like me to send them to?” Anja asked.
“My parents’ house is probably the best,” I replied, without thinking the logistics through.
Anja dutifully sent them with the same great care that she had kept them in her drawer for over twenty years. They never arrived. Yes, gone. Never arrived.
Somehow, at that time my parents happened to leave on a holiday, they had their mail forwarded to another address, I did not read the memo, and the rest is a mystery. For twenty plus years they were kept in a treasured safe place where no one would ever read them and when I had finally mentally prepared myself to read them, they never arrived. To this day, I still do not know where they ended up. At best, I am hoping a recycling pile. Maybe I was simply never meant to read them again.
Sadly, my memory is notoriously bad and probably best defined as embarrassing. People close to me are sometimes astounded by my inability to recall a situation or even certain people, and yet I surprise them with the most mundane details of a seemingly unimportant experience. This always helps me make my point that we all experience a situation differently, but never helps me out when I simply need to remember.
Luckily, my husband remembers all the memories we created together in the greatest detail. I have also had the pleasure to make good friends who will never forget to point out experiences that perhaps I conveniently choose to forget. When I write now, I usually write not to forget. It’s no surprise that I am drawn to people who have extraordinary capabilities of remembering and storytelling.
Rare selfie with my better memory
And Chris O’Shaugnessy has that amazing gift of true storytelling. He can make you cry tears of laughter and before you know it tears of an entirely different sort trickle past your cheek, which in turn are relieved again by tears of laughter. After confiding in us stories of nakedness and vulnerability, he also left us with the wise quote “Ultimately, our gift to the world is hope. Not blind hope that pretends everything is fine and refuses to acknowledge how things are. But the kind of hope that comes from staring pain and suffering right in the eyes and refusing to believe that this is all there is” (Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell, 2005).
Bringing empathy and expertise to the evolving global family was the theme of this year’s conference. That feeling of nakedness and vulnerability that screams for empathy resonated. It made me think about the people in my life who showed me empathy, and on the Sunday after the FIGT conference I was lucky enough to spend time with (Juf) Anja from my book B at Home. If any person ever showed true empathy at a time when I needed it most, it is Anja.
Anja is that person who is not a Third Culture Kid, but has empathy for being one, listens, and tries to understand. You feel understood even though she does not share the same experiences.Those people should really get a special award.
After spending three years at the inter-community school of Zurich, where I had made friends from all the different continents and learned to speak English and Swiss German, we repatriated back to the Netherlands. The culture shock was real. I was eight years old and excited about moving back but at the same time feeling very unsure about fitting back in.
When I walked into my new Dutch school, Anja was the first person who walked past me. Not missing a beat, she said, “You are new! What’s your name?” When I told her I would be going to third grade, her response was: “That’s too bad! I wish you’d be coming to fifth grade, because that’s what I teach.” Talk about making a girl feel welcome.
Anja was different from my other teachers there. One of ‘those’ teachers who stay with you forever. When I would approach her when she was on recess duty, she would ask me how I was doing. How I was really doing. She would ask me about Switzerland. How I felt about moving back. If I had made new friends. She listened. Empathy. I was lonely and she recognized it. She made me feel seen and heard, appreciated, invited and included, as Ilaria Vilkelis described during her presentation the first day of FIGT 2016.
When the mother of our twin classmates died from cancer, Anja had us sit in a circle and talk about it. We were ten going on eleven and needed that sharing time to process our classmates’ and our own grief. That lesson left more of an impression on me than any math or geography lesson ever did.
As I sat in her living room the Sunday after the conference, I glanced over at the drawer in which my ‘letters never arrived’ had sat in for decades. Even though there is something therapeutic about being able to write about our nakedness, it is the moments that we share as storytellers that connect us.
As we were discussing grief, life’s challenges and tribulations, I knew that at the end of the day it’s exactly those moments between us that count. When we are able to be moved by the feelings of others and feel less lonely because of it, and hopefully make the other person feel that way too. When we are the protagonists of our own stories and memories by simply being together, and speaking that language that empathy is based on. Those letters do not matter in the end, the fact that we shared another memory does. And I won’t forget this one easily.
Reunited with Anja after FIGT 2016
So for the second year, I was fortunate enough to be able to reflect on this life-shaping conference, the lessons on nakedness and empathy, and my letters that never arrived from what our daughters are calling ‘our Italy House’. We might not own it, but we do own a new tradition and memories. And hopefully as usual, my husband will create a wonderful digital photo album of it all which will help my memory stay strong. If it gets lost in the mail, we can reorder…