Late summer, 1968
"You were home, Dad. What was it like?"
"We had a new job, a new house, a new car, a newly broken ankle, I was working on a new degree, and--we had a new baby. You."
My father has listed all these 'news' many times for me, like a sub-theme in a symphony, popping up over and over; perhaps not the only theme, but an important one. He was now twenty-six, and by this time had married, got a BA and teaching credential, gone to Afghanistan, moved back across the world to California, enrolled in a Master's of Education in Administration, and now had two daughters, bought a new car, and broken his ankle falling in a hole out while monitoring kids on the playground at the school where he worked in Concord, California. I don't know if this theme of 'many new things' is a sub-theme of adventure, or of overload, too much responsibility weighing on a young man; perhaps it is both, shades of the same color, the same theme, clues to his identity.
Adventure--stepping outside one's own comfort zone--and service--creating order out of chaos, allowing an institution to fulfill its own identity--I think these two ideals are deep inside my father, and are themes within him, his identity. The search for identity lies deep within each soul and the formation of identity happens inexorably--one cannot stop it, like the formation of rock deep within the earth under forces of heat and pressure, or like a tea bag steeping, becoming part of the water around it, the water changing it--and for the human soul, it happens through idealization, most deeply in childhood and young adulthood; one who travels as he did begins to understand just how deep identity lies, though in my parents' case, this lesson has had to be learned through a lifetime of joys, deep discussions, bridges of understanding built, and hardships with their own daughters.
When he left Afghanistan in 1968, he and my mother had not thought of returning; he had become interested in administration as service, and says, "When you feel a great interest in something, it is probably also because you have a skill set for it." He enrolled at UC Hayward and lived in a suburb, and let life unfold. In 1970, Dr. Herb Friesen, the ophthalmologist who had started the Noor Eye Hospital in Kabul and gave his entire adult life to serving the Afghan people, a board member of Ahlman Academy where my parents had taught in 1966-68 and where his own children attended, stopped by to visit my parents on furlough. Knowing my father was working on a administration degree, Dr. Friesen asked if my parents would be interested in coming back to Kabul, to Ahlman Academy, with my father as the Director.
The entry back would prove difficult: "I found going back to Afghanistan, when we got there, hard; I found that I'd built up this idealized view of it, and then when I got there, the reality sank in. During my three years away, I remembered it as an exciting place to be; this time it would be a new challenge and a new job, and it was adventuresome to be there, because it was so different. I mean, we knew what we were getting into, but I had much more of a culture shock than Mom did, in terms of the ideal that I had in my head about how exciting it was--and then the reality hit when we got there. It was just so, so different--the bazaars, the way people lived, the donkeys and camels...it was just so different. I just felt that--I don't know, confused is the wrong word--but it was a feeling that came out of having a view of it that had built up over three years and then facing the reality of the culture and of what was going on...why did I return to such a place?! This was kind of, well, 'Are you kidding me?'"
I said to him, "Traveling was for you, also part of your identity, and when you idealize something it also becomes part of your identity--and then the reality can be, when you return, or go for the first time, destructive to your own self-identity, built of expectations and ideals--"
"Well, it doesn't take very long to re-adjust and learn to understand the reality."
This exchange makes me laugh, and helps me see my father, to see his identity, and the differences between us; I am busy digging deep underneath one spot while he is practical, taking each moment as it comes, looking for the best response to difficulties, staying in the particulars and not creating universal principles around every corner. On the one hand, I was--and am--a watcher, a thinker, a sponge, looking always for deeper truths, and on the other, he was--and is--busy creating order in every situation; he teaches me a lot via his differences from me, and I understand our infrequent lack of understanding--specifically, as a child, I just assumed everyone thought the way I did, philosophically, and when he made the life choices for adventure and service in the moment, I could not always understand or follow along easily, and often I was not able to process the lightning-fast pace at which he lives his life.
Yet, I have learned, taken, a great deal from him, especially in the area of service and simply 'getting on with it.' His identity, his vocation, has also been to search for, define, articulate, and realize the identities, or missions, of the various educational institutions he has worked within; this he sees as service, defining and nurturing not his own vision for a community, but defining and nurturing the identity it already has. He understands, and somehow, even when everything was 'new' he understood, that leadership is servanthood of a communal identity bigger than oneself, that true leadership cannot exist within the selfish person.
"There weren't people in Afghanistan who had a lot of personal experience or training in educational administration, so it often happened people were put into the wrong positions, particularly in remote places where you have to utilize the people you've got who may not have the inclination or training to actually do the job; this was the case with Ahlman Academy; it went through this period when it grew, but it didn't have people with background or training on the administrative side. So, when we went back to the States, I felt like I had an interest and inclination towards administration. When you have a strong interest in something, it often follows that you have some ability to do it. But if you want power, forget about it. Once you get into it, you realize that administration is not a power position; you are a servant--and if you don't go into it with that understanding, you won't do well and you probably won't last very long.
"When we returned in '71, I was administrating, in Afghanistan, in an apostolate. What had to be solved there was organizational issues, and the purpose of the mission.The administrator needs to help in defining the purpose, but also in carrying out the purpose, and keeping that purpose in front of the people who work for the institution--ie, 'where here to do this, not to do that, etc'--at Ahlman, we were not a Christian mission school. There were, in other parts of the world, mission schools: teachers were trained by and sent out by mission organizations. Ahlman Academy was not supported by mission organizations, but by the tuition. So there were many different kinds of students: some were children of missionaries, some were children of embassy employees, or aid organizations, the UN, etc.. In that sense, we were there not for the International Afghan Mission Organization, but for the wider community.
"However, we didn't have Afghan students, because the Afghan government did not allow them to attend our school, or any foreign school, Christian or not. I think the Afghan government felt responsible for educating the children of their own people, in their way, and that any break down in that system would not be good; it was both a Muslim issue and a civil issue...we had the same issue in Russia; Russian children would not attend the Anglo-American School, and they were atheists; it was an issue about the children becoming Westernized--it was about loyalty to the culture and system of their own country."
When he says this, I sense again a certain major cultural difference between an Eastern, traditional, fundamentally communal culture like Afghanistan and the more secular, 'loose,' almost lost, identity of many Westerners, and I immediately wonder if an international education for younger children has a certain inherent danger--a danger to the identity of each child and to the culture at large. My father confirms this out of his twenty-eight years of experience in international schools:
"It has that aspect to it; an international education, wherein you are serving a lot of different countries, does contain a certain danger. At the UN School in New York, where we served 130 different countries, I always used to tell the parents that we were limited in terms of what we could do in terms of their own countries, their own culture. I would therefore tell them that they had a much larger responsibility if they wanted their children to understand their home culture, if they wanted their children to be German, or Australian. So no matter where the international school was in the world, the inculcation of language, culture, religion, or values was the responsibility of the family; I also tried to impress on them that it was important to create that identity for children, because their identities will already be more global than normal, a 'looser' identity."
He says, when I ask him how he understood this 'loose' or 'third-culture' aspect in terms of my sister and I, "We didn't think about it that much; we thought more about our experience than yours--'wow, we are going to go home to the States'--but it wasn't home for you, necessarily."
In talking with him, I also understand now that perhaps due to his practical, 'get on with it' side he didn't know just how deep, how formative, the results of his choices were on his own children, the choice especially to traverse cultural boundaries. I can imagine that it would be like, perhaps, realizing that the bottom of the lake is actually a subterranean cave that leads to the ocean, to eternity.
"There was a lot of literature that came out about third culture kids, but it came out much later--I don't remember a book or anything at the time we were in Afghanistan; there was no discussion about it; we just assumed that when you were younger, just being with us at home was enough--and when we were in Afghanistan, when you were 3-6 and 5-8, that was enough; but when we went to Greece, we needed to have done more talking about it, and particularly when we moved back to the States, we needed to talk about it a lot more.
"This is why, when you and Marylynne graduated from high school, we felt that we needed to go back to Greece, after we'd been away for a number of years; we knew you'd built up an ideal of it, and to go back and see the reality, and to know that you really weren't Greek; you know, your identity is--well, you can't be Greek, unless you lived there long-term. It is hard for people like you and Marylynne, who live somewhere else like Greece, and then you come back to your parents' home country, but you don't really fit; it is hard. You don't fit anywhere."
In the pause, something wells up in me in response, and I say to him, "As a little child, the culture around you is like music--it goes right into your soul--there are no filters, and so what is around just simply becomes part of who you are. When you are little, there are no narratives around these experiences of life around you, so you have to spend the rest of your life trying to figure out the narrative."
There is a short silence, as he takes this in, and then he replies: "Yes, when you live in a home culture like I did, growing up in one place, you understand your identity--you have a base identity; when you move, then, you have a base from which to understand other places.
"So third-culture kids can find themselves confused--it can be difficult. Looking back now, at you and Marylynne, we didn't regret going there, but regret not preparing more for the return from overseas, particularly from Greece--when we were trying to actually move back permanently to the States--this cultural shift back was an added burden on you girls. We could have done a lot better to help you through this, but we just didn't know; we didn't have the background to understand what was going on that way, in terms of identity, being a third-culture kid, and the re-entering process for all of us--though it was much harder for you and Marylynne. I think giving some--or knowing what was going on, getting a better feel for it, talking about it--would've helped. I guess that is our only regret. We didn't think about this issue that much."
Though he now has more understanding of the challenges my sister and I face in terms of our identities, it is interesting that my father doesn't speak about my sister and I going back to Afghanistan, to see the reality in terms of what it really did to form our identities; he says often that we were just too little to really be affected by Afghanistan. This does help me understand him--and just how much he doesn't, or I don't, understand about identity. I sense, underneath the way he has learned to understand his choices and the resulting story of our family, a questioning about what actually happened, and the meaning of it all: what is there to regret, what is there to feel confident about, what is the meaning at the heart of things? I believe now we will find it together, all of us, because we four are, in a sense, and will always be, a living unit, a domestic church.
So I think about my response, if he indeed is asking those deeper questions: He doesn't know about, hasn't stepped inside, the deep crevasses of guilt and sadness I feel about never going back to see Mir Ali, or to help Afghanistan; he doesn't know that as a young child, the world of Afghanistan entered my soul like music and continued the forming begun at conception, that my soul was more like a sponge with many pockets filled, simply, by everything around me. As he says, his view of the return to Afghanistan was through the eyes of a young, adventuresome, American man, and I see him then as a man who had basically lived in one house his entire childhood, whose identity had been largely set in one US state. His cultural shock, upon return to Kabul in 1971, was ensconced within a certain identity, from a soul steeped in a certain Christian, American, Washington, Olympian, context, with specific Wrye family lore and habits, thousands of sights, smells, concepts, attitudes, crises, sufferings and their solutions, tastes, peas and carrots, choral music and rock-n-roll, large steel automobiles, hamburgers, and highways, friendly police and pastors coloring the gospel, the deepest things within us, prayer and repentance.
Marylynne was five and returning to Kabul, and I was three, when we left what home we'd known in California (mainly our mother's arms, our father's joy and rough-housing, our grandmother, and each other, and the red ball and small pool in our backyard) and sat on our parents' laps and watched the land become an anthill, then a blue expanse, then after unknown stops across the globe and the small deaths of sleep, a brown expanse on the other end. But that brown expanse became particularized as a house within a city, having its own unrepeatable smell and taste, a house with a large yard and nine-foot walls, within which I silently watched my dachsund Lucy keep a scorpion half her size away from me, within which I listened to the sounds outside and knew I could not venture alone for fear of stray packs of dogs, within which we began to make moral choices, to leave the ego behind, within which my understanding of family included my Afghan grandfather, a man I simply took into my heart and soul as family, who spoke to me in Farsi and watched over my sister and I the best he could. I was loved by those with pale skin who spoke English, and loved by those who had darker skin and spoke in tones like music, or water falling from a great height. In my soul, an ideal developed, among many, but a theme, a steeping of my soul: Love has great forming power even beyond language, culture, color, custom. It is the deepest river in human life, in the universe. It is where we find God in each other, no matter our backgrounds, and language can, simply, get in the way.
I go and speak now, to my soul-twin, my same-pressed intaglio, my sister, because we share so much more than genetics, more even than the same loving parents: We share the same third culture, and there is no other person who claims citizenship to the same culture; we are alone, in a sense, two small blonde girls, hand in hand, taking in the same journeys across the globe; still, now in our late forties and early fifties, we reach across invisible signals bouncing off cell towers and find each other's hands again, and silently grasp: "I'm here, too. Are you here?" I need her here to speak to me in our own language of fractured memory, at times fractured identity; I ask her: "Do you feel a connection with Afghanistan? What comes up for you?"
"What comes up for me is that I feel Afghan. I've been realizing that. That doesn't have anything to do with what Afghanistan is like now, I don't imagine: but I certainly don't feel American. I don't really even feel Greek; I think a lot more happened in Afghanistan in terms of my identity than even what happened in Greece; that's not something I have really figured out yet, but I feel like there's truth in that, and it helps me think about my life, and how I am relating to the world.
"It shows up when I look back at it in Dad's pictures, I found it in a lot of the pictures. I realize now I have a connection there that I didn't know about before--and the interesting thing is that I don't think I am forcing it; I think rather I am uncovering it. I am finding a touchstone that I didn't know was there--so let me think of an image. Dad has multiple portraits of men, and he has some really good ones of women and children; I guess it brings up a feeling of connection. I mean, I wasn't part of the Afghan culture--"
There is a pause, ever so slight, but yet enormous in the language of the soul, and with a deep strength, "---but I was. And so was Dad, and so was Mom, and so were you. I think people don't realize how powerful that is.
"The other day, when I heard Dad talking to you, he was saying something about when you and I came back to the States; well, we never came back to the States, because we were never in the States. Mom and Dad naturally still think of us as originating in America as Americans; I guess that is a natural thing to think because we are so inseparable from them, but I think the moment I was born there, I was separated from them, and I don't think that separation is something that Mom or Dad can understand--and it is not something I can easily describe, either; but the more I think about it, look at pictures, try to describe it, the more strongly that comes back: what does it mean to be me? I've found myself saying to myself, 'I'm more Afghan than anything else.' It is kind of extreme, isn't it? It sounds extreme when it comes out of my mouth, but it doesn't feel extreme."
When she is speaking about her birth in the American Dispensary in Kabul in the winter of 1967, an image of her bursts forth: it is an old photograph, the colors slightly hued blue, pink cheeks and blankets a slight, rich purple; My mother is looking happy and relieved as she holds a tiny bundle; what strikes me is my sister's face; I have never forgotten this image of her. Her eyes, like blue stars in a tiny, perfectly symmetrical face, are looking out towards the world, searching, open, her soul right at the surface, drawing in the new intensity of life outside the womb.
I know she is right; I know, have always known, that something momentous happened in her soul, and in our family, and to my parents, because she was born there. I don't know what it means, but I tell her that "I resonate with you in that: I wonder if there is a time in the life of a child, when you go from a pre-rational state to a fully rational state, and you were in Afghanistan at that time; I might have been on the cusp of it, but I really had that turnover in Greece. So, though Afghanistan is a part of me, I really feel Greek...so I wonder if that is part of why you feel the way you do."
But my own musings do not satisfy me, because this is her mystery--so then I ask, "How did the Afghan get inside you?"
She hesitates, and says, "That is a great question. I have to think about it...I understand it now, I guess through the identification I start feeling with the people in the photographs Dad took; I have mostly the people to look at, although he took some pictures of the landscape--I tend to write about the particular person in the picture, and I am thinking about their life, and my life, and their life there, and my life when I was there, and how we were connected at the time, but I don't really know the answer--and when I start writing about my feelings, it becomes more concrete.
"It is interesting to think about how memory works; if you read Proust?, for example, that is such an interesting explanation about how memory works; I guess memory--for me it is more uncovering a foundation that I didn't know was there, rather than a specific memory, although specific memories can be a part of that. The way I would describe my emotion about this foundation of my memories, my identity, is a certain kind of fierceness--as if I need to protect it--I don't know; it is just incredibly strong."
I wonder if it is the same fierceness I feel, though perhaps fainter and more fractured than hers, or the fierceness she recognizes in the eyes of those Afghan children, men, and women who were painted onto a slide in a sudden flash of light, captured pieces of their souls, and the soul of Afghanistan. Perhaps, like when one looks at photographs of a grandparent long gone, Marylynne recognizes herself in their eyes, recognizes that deep foundation that is contained partly within memory, but reaches much deeper, past memory, into her identity, her soul. I ask her about any specific, strong memories that come from that foundation:
"A specific memory that comes to mind, over and over again, is Mir Ali. I just feel like that was an important connection for me, and you know, it was a place where there was a lot of trauma and fear that people had--you know, pushing up against the culture, you know the risk of evangelizing, for example; I remember that overall feeling, coming also from hearing about people being killed, and the church being torn down...that stuff was very vivid, because those things were over-arching for the community we were in; and it is interesting to talk to Mom and Dad and to hear, not only Mom's more rosy approach--yes, you know that is very strong in her; it is a bulwark--but then to hear Dad's frankness about how much he disagreed with how people were doing things, and he hated the dishonesty that was often happening--and how adamant he was that Ahlman Academy wasn't a Christian school and that it was an international school; Mom will refer back to it as "Christian" and he will correct her: "It wasn't a Christian school." Yet he also says that "we were called.' Well, the idea of a calling probably changed quite a bit because of that experience--I'm not sure how it worked out for Mom."
In response, I say, "We must also look through Mom and Dad's views; we were small enough that these views were of course part of us, too, right?"
"Yes, in terms of Dad's view, I am looking at the pictures that he is taking--as a photographer, what I know about myself is that when I pick up a camera, I don't know what I am going to get, I am searching, I am asking a question and I feel like that is what he was doing...I feel like he was investigating what it meant to be there and what a calling from God really means. That process that he was going through is very interesting to me. I write in response to this, and the most interesting piece of writing about the photographs I've done is the one where I start talking about him in the third person, and then I end the piece of writing talking in the first person, as myself, which is strange. So, I am saying about him, "He's taking this photograph, he's new, he's there, the first time he's been outside his own culture, he's asking the question" and then I'm starting to describe what is like there; I remember writing, "He has his first child" I remember writing, and then, "Everything that he left behind is changing without him, and he's changing too" and then for some reason, it turns into me, and I'm describing what it was like--yes, a few details about how I felt about being there."
When she says, "Everything he left behind" I suddenly see that small, blue-starred face in the old photograph, and I wonder if, because Marylynne felt separated from our parents the moment she was born in Afghanistan, that somehow, she was, or part of her, was also left behind and continued changing and growing there when they left in the summer of 1974...it is a feeling that resonates with me, both about her and about myself; can part of your identity be left behind? Is that part of that feeling of being in exile, or long-term homesickness? Is it part of the human community, as we are all homo viator? Is St. Augustine on to the same thing in The Confessions:
No one knows what he himself is made of, except his own spirit within him, yet there is still some part of him which remains hidden even from his own spirit; but you, Lord, know everything about a human being because you have made him… Let me, then, confess what I know about myself, and confess too what I do not know, because what I know of myself I know only because you shed light on me, and what I do not know I shall remain ignorant about until my darkness becomes like bright noon before your face.
What is our identity? The sum of our environments? Our sense of place? Isn't it deeper? The answer must call on the mystery of the incarnated soul, an eternal being who must be formed partially in time, in the body, by many hands, choices in time of others and ourselves, through sight, sound, smell, touch. What happens to children who live between worlds, those we now call 'third-culture kids' of which I am one? Are we multi-steeped souls, those who, like tea bags moved from cup to cup, are left with a tepid identity, relativists, un-rooted souls? Or are we simply steeped in a meta-cup, and become ourselves an ideal for a small world, a global reality, like the tea bag the American and British staff pinned up above the hot water in Ahlman Academy's faculty room as a joke because tea bags were not available in Afghanistan, a curiosity, an odd, in-between thing, a soul of multiple-steeping of sorts?
Or are we blessed beyond the norm, able to move between worlds, philosopher-children like Socrates who could see his own culture from the outside, and thus could see that "all I know is that I do not know"? Do we see mystery more easily, or become tepid, rootless, angst-ridden creatures, unable to know any culture? Are we those in the strange position to choose our own identities, all the while not really having the power to choose to be Afghan, or Greek, or American? Is identity really ever a choice? Is our identity also formed in the purging fire between the ideals we form in our youth and the reality we must continue to confront as we age? What did my parents inadvertently give us, as all parents inadvertently, along with the purposeful forming, give to their children's souls? The inadvertent things, the implicit ideals passed on, are for the believer in a personal God who works "for the good of those who love Him" openings, theophanies, through which providence enters into the soul: these are all the things given us, things beyond our parents' knowledge or power or sensitivity, good things and painful things, ideals of joy and suffering, things that profoundly shape our view of the world, and shape, in a sense, our choices--perhaps they help unfold the destiny God has planned before we were born.
What all this does tell me is that the soul reaches out beyond, far beyond the body, and like a steeping tea bag, bleeds out into the surrounding water, and is also changed by that water in turn. Thus the Great Rose, the image of the Empyrean at the end of Dante's Paradisio is truth, a true poetic image that teaches us our own identities as those creatures who are made to live always within the soul of a civitas, a polis, a family, an order, whether we make that an inferno, or we live under the Creator in a purgatorio, or within Him in paradisio.