Notes from an Amateur Anthropologist with the Lens Turned Inward

…Or, Incidental Thoughts in the Mind of a TCK with an Anthropology and Law Oriented Mind Who Became a “Mum” Along the Way 

Being in an unfamiliar setting has a way of filtering apart the parts of you that are truly you from those parts that you’ve been taught to include in your life. Whether we admit it or not, whether we like it or not, our views and attitudes, practices and habits–really all the things that make our life ours–are influenced by our surroundings. Yes, we can consciously resist something in our surroundings that we don’t agree with, but there is plenty that we absorb, mostly unknowingly. For most of us, living our day-to-day lives, this influence is not even detectable.

My everyday life has also gone from harried working professional to “just” a mother (“mum”) and aspiring writer, and my wardrobe has reflected this metamorphosis. My complete abandonment of fashion or make-up (not that I was very big on either before) feels like a return to my essential self. If I’m not smelly or sticky, my hair is tolerably untangled, and I’m wearing clothes that are sufficiently unstained and coordinated to appease my OCD, then everyone shush. Anything more is to impress others, and therefore entirely unnecessary so far as I can tell. Actually, now that I think about it, even some of those basics are more for others than for me (I’m not the one who has to look at my clashing outfit, after all), but a gal’s not entirely immune to social norms.

That said, times when we’ve been in a city like Sydney, surrounded by the fashion-forward crowd, I may or may not have found myself casting longing looks at window displays of scarves or boots, both of which I have an irrational fondness for. In those moments, I choose not to question whether such items are, strictly speaking, really necessary.

In this way, moments in the past few months have brought into sharp focus for me just what about me is more, and less, influenced by my surroundings. The first moment actually came to me when I was driving along, listening to an RN broadcast (that’s Radio National for the uninitiated), and recognized how grounded my mind was listening to the news and debates of the day here, and how happy it made my heart–just as NPR does in the States. Listening to MPs in the Australian Parliament refer repeatedly to the “members opposite” as they passionately discuss a bill is unlike anything I’d hear on NPR, but something about it is very familiar just the same. Yes, “public radio nerd” is a badge I wear proudly.

Something else that I’ve noticed in our months here, and the proximity to wildlife that defines this life, is my changing attitude about this proximity. Little geckos have occasionally come indoors. This might have generated my story-of-the-day in our reptile-free life in Columbus, but here it merits no more than a passing observation. They are fairly harmless–though their insect meals aren’t likely of the same view–and they generally find their way back outside as quickly as they can. Given that they eat mosquitoes, you can even say they’re beneficial to us. Likewise, the flying foxes that we regularly see at dusk near our place won’t hurt us if we don’t bother them. It’s really no big deal. I’m starting to feel the same way about many of the creatures we’ve seen here: birds, spiders, etc. I see no need to extinguish them completely from our surroundings.

I would not, however, have objected
if these King Parrots had restrained themselves
from entering my immediate surroundings.

That said, once I see a snake–and I’ve been told my chances of leaving without encountering one are slim–I’ll be a lot less laissez-faire about the whole thing.

The girls, on the other hand, were quite happy
to have them invade their personal space.
If, in fact, I ever do see a snake, I’d hope that my love of running, which has also proven itself pretty central to my overall sense of self, will kick in and transport me as far away from it as possible. With that, I think I’ll go find my running shoes and practice my great escape, while, of course, listening to a  public radio podcast or two.

Reflections on Mother’s Day

This past weekend was Mother’s Day weekend in many parts of the world, including Australia and the U.S. But something about this year was different. Whether it was the fact that both kids were old enough to know what the day was about and to express themselves in their own way, or whether it was the fact that I was experiencing it away from the usual social cues and rituals that surround it in the States, it was just…different.

Coral-filled waters off the beaches of Lady Elliot Island

And eye-opening. The day is meant to celebrate the relationship between mothers and their children, with the myriad of forms the connection can take. Over time, the day’s focus has ranged from highlighting the unique relationship every mother has with her child/children, to highlighting ways in which mothers and their efforts have made the world go ’round. (N.b: I am referring here to the many women who have actually  raised, or are raising, their children. I am not addressing those who, for any number of reasons, did not or are not.)

But as I read Facebook posts of “best Mom ever” declarations, and watched advertisements promising products that will make mothers feel as special as they deserve, I kept asking myself: since when is it not enough to celebrate that motherhood is a unique and, dare I say, mysterious bond?  Since when is it not enough, just this one designated day, for a mother to reflect on the fact that she loves her children fiercely and unconditionally, and that, despite her imperfect parenting and the mistakes she (and every mother) has made, she is trying her best? And for her children to acknowledge the same? When my children are old enough to think about these things, that’s what I want. Why all the superlatives? Is there really a prize out there for Best Mother? Doesn’t that depend on who the child is? Surely we all recognize that mothers and children can have personalities that are better or worse matched. Surely we recognize that, if we are lucky enough to have children, or a mother–or both!–that this, in and of itself, is a precious gift, imperfectly shaped, but a gift to be held and cherished nonetheless.

And why the quest to get the perfect gift for Mother’s Day? I say this hesitantly, as I love presents as much as the next person. But really: are flowers, brunch, jewelry, what-have-you, really necessary (as they seem to have become in the States, anyway)? I sometimes wonder if this drive has been prompted by an expressed desire by many women to feel appreciated. If I’m right about this, there may be many reasons for this desire (a rare opportunity in the busiest social circles to focus on relationships, recognition of a mothers’ sacrifices, etc.), but I think I know what one important one is.

You see, there are mothers that I think of as the “accidental” mothers. I’m guessing we all know (or perhaps are) someone like this: the idea of having a family is lovely, and with hope and nostalgia, it’s something these women go about making plans to have. Family movie nights, reading books at bedtime together, hilarious family vacation memories, messy food fights: bring on the swelling music and grainy photos of laughing families.

What accidental mothers are not prepared for is the sheer difficulty and sacrifice of motherhood. Somewhere along the way, for all mothers, it gets incredibly tough. And in that moment, they realize that they have accidentally stumbled into something much bigger than photos and nostalgia. That moment may be as early as pregnancy. It will almost definitely be during the first few sleepless, wail-filled months (or years). It may be when handling three kids under the age of six. It may be when trying to keep the emotions in check while responding to an angst-filled teenager. It may be sitting in a hospital room, looking at the fragile body you gave birth to hooked up to tubes and machines. The examples are endless. My point is this: motherhood is incredibly, and repeatedly, difficult. And it is my firm belief that plenty of women enter motherhood having no clue what they’re signing up for. And so perhaps Mother’s Day has become, for some among them, less about celebrating the bond they have with their child/children, no matter how accidentally it might have come about, and more about celebrating the fact that they are surviving this challenging journey.

And you’ll pardon my saying so, but I think that’s a shame, and a waste. No matter what we mothers thought we were signing up for–no matter how accidentally motherhood may have entered our lives–it can be such an inexpressibly beautiful relationship, and it is a waste if we don’t take the chances we have tending to that bond with our children. Instead, too often we end up wishing away the time, or wishing circumstances were different. And then the years have slipped by and the relationships have solidified into something far less than they could be.

What’s my point? I’ve been the mother who felt under-appreciated and, shortcomings glaring at me, like a poser. And I don’t want to be there again. I don’t want to expect flowers or presents. I want the day to be a chance to reflect on how we are doing rather than a day spent hearing and comparing who is the most this and best that. None of it matters even half as much as what kind of a story we are building within our own family. It’s there that the memories and music live. And I hope that’s a perspective I never lose.

[Now for those of you who are less interested in my musings and more in our time in Australia, this is for you: this past weekend, we took a day trip to Lady Elliot Island, over the southern part of the Great Barrier Reef. A glass-bottomed boat took us out for some amazing snorkeling. We saw every color imaginable on every shape and size of fish imaginable, and sea turtles, and even a few manta rays. My only regret is that we didn’t have a waterproof camera, but perhaps this absence allowed us to just enjoy the experience a little more.]

View of the island as we approached in our little 14-seat propeller plane.

A Trip to the Grocery Store

One of the fun little things to do when abroad, as most any traveler will tell you, is to peruse the items in a grocery store. So I’m taking you on a trip to see just a sample of the items in a typical Australian market. Keeping it light this time, folks. 
Walking down the cereal aisle, I recognized a familiar box. Hey, you say “raisin,” I say “sultana!”
Some day, I’m going to look into how such two totally different words developed in the English language for the same dried fruit.

Savory pies are a staple. What’s the U.S. equivalent? Hot Pockets? Marie’s Chicken Pot Pies? Frozen burritos? 

Something about Australian eggs does not require refrigeration…
Also, I wish I’d taken a close-up so you could see the eggs marked as “caged” as well as “cage-free.” No room for doubt there.
This one’s obligatory: what self-respecting Aussie pantry would be complete without Vegemite?

On the rare occasion that fruit is shipped all the way from the U.S., the price reflects it. (The vast majority of fruit is grown in Australia, though a recent news expose just uncovered the exploitation of migrant labor in harvesting said fruit.)
Variation in language use is one of my favorite discoveries. Most items labeled “dessicated” in the U.S. would not be sitting peacably on a supermarket shelf.

Tea (or coffee) hour is awarded its due respect with the wide variety of biscuits available. 
No running to the store because you’ve run out of milk
when you can have a supply of ultra-pasteurized milk waiting on your pantry shelf.

First time I saw “Halloumi” in a restaurant entree description, I had no idea what it referred to. Turns out it’s this lovely Cypriot cheese that is widely available here.

This is one of my favorite: why bother with a name like “cheddar” when you can call it what it is: Tasty!

It’s rare to find chicken or meat that is not marked as either free-range, antibiotic free, or the like.
Then, of course, there are the things you’d never see in a U.S. grocery store…
…and–full disclosure–I’ve only seen this particular burger once, and can’t say how popular it is.
That was fun. And to make sure we leave on a happy note, moving ramps to the car park are cart-friendly (the wheels lock onto the ramp by some brilliantly simple little mechanism).

Sparkling Waters and the Blue Beneath

Fraser Island, partial cover of rain clouds
I woke up somewhere around 2:30 a.m. the other night, I think from a disturbing dream. In that strange place between sleep and wakefulness, as they often are, my thoughts were muddled yet piercing. “What,” I asked myself, “are we doing here? How is it that we found ourselves on this spot on the Australian map?” I thought of our family and friends and our home and the lives we had left behind. They are precious to us; how did we have the–what: courage? madness?–to leave them behind, even temporarily, and land here?
Moments like this are why…going up the cable car at the Taronga Zoo, Sydney.

My thoughts turned to my dad’s passing, and that horrible, dark day when we were ripped out of our everyday happiness to learn he’d been taken from us. I cannot think about that day without a leaden weight settling on my chest again.

Next month, it’ll have been two years. Nothing is the same as it was then. We try to be happy, we try to carry on. He would have wanted that, yes, of course he would. But every now and again, I find that I dip from the little joys–and trivial worries–that occupy our everyday lives to the sadness beneath. It is always there. It is born of the knowledge that, in this life, we will not know again the wholeness that his presence brought. It is born of the conviction that I want to live a life he would be proud of, even, or especially, since his death. This desire is not born out of a desire to please him–no, that would be futile, and juvenile besides, but because I have realized only lately what he knew all along. This life is about building a spirit that will live on, a spirit that will overcome the things of this world that fade, rust, die.

When we were thinking about coming to Australia, one of the thoughts that kept coming to me was this: “we are travelers on this earth. Whether we are a short drive from loved ones or hemispheres and continents apart, this place is not our home.” What would it teach us, what would we discover, in actually experiencing the life of nomads, of souls in but not of this world? The magnitude of that answer will, I think, take the full length of our time here, and perhaps longer, to make itself known. In the meantime, I am immensely grateful for the time and space to look for answers in big ways and small.

On the ferry back to Sydney’s city center, Opera House and Harbour Bridge in the background.
Ariel view of Fraser Island’s eastern coast (75 mile beach)
At the Circular Quay dock, in one of M’s rare, and brief, moments of stillness.


It was about 4pm. Too early for dinner, and too late to go out anywhere, when just getting the kids to put their shoes on and climb in the car can take 20 minutes. None of the toys at home were holding the kids’ attention. So I proposed we go down to the beach for a quick walk.

As it always does for the kids, amazingly so, the simple walk turned into an adventure–usually a hunt for unusual shells. That day, it was also a drawing session. The six-year-old would draw her figures, only to watch, half distressed and half amused, as a wave would rush up and wash half of them away. Then she would begin again, unperturbed by concepts such as time or effort wasted.

I watched the two of them, taking pure joy in this simple walk, and feeling that joy myself. In our “regular” lives, an hour like this would have been hard to find. So full did we keep our days, between the necessities of running a household and the multitude of involvements (social, professional, etc.) that I never had time–never made time–for things like an aimless walk at dusk (setting aside, for the moment, that Columbus lacks an ocean shore on which to take said walk).

Lent season is almost over now. Simplicity, everything pared down to its essence, seems to have been the theme, appropriately so for me. Spiritually, it has been a time of reflection and questioning, but mostly of soaking in the care with which God has kept us. Not every day has been easy, being so far from family and loved ones, and navigating new rules, professionally and socially. But we have always felt God’s Hand, protecting when we worried, holding when we needed comfort. It’s a very simple idea, but no less powerful for it.

Materially, it has also been a season of simplicity. Preparing Lent meals (all vegan) is always a challenge for me, I will admit. But when you take away my crutches of international grocery stores, really good restaurants, and a work schedule that before had at least allowed my husband to prepare a good share of dinners, what we were left with this Lent was a whole lot of potatoes (which thankfully, the kids invariably enjoy). Roasted potatoes, sweet potatoes (baked and roasted), more roasted potatoes, even mashed potatoes (but that was one of his creations). My six year old always reminds me when she sees them that my father loved potatoes; perhaps he did precisely because of their comforting simplicity. (Note to Mom: don’t worry, I feed the kids animal protein too.)

And perhaps this theme of simplicity was just a continuation of a theme I had pseudo-consciously began when we first embarked on this Australia adventure. After all, even my choices in what clothes to bring was an exercise in paring down: eight t-shirts, two dressy shirts, three pairs of shorts, four skirts, two dresses, and three pairs of sandals (my “winter” wardrobe is warmer clothes, but just about the same quantities). For some of you readers, this may seem totally reasonable. For others, it will seem shockingly spartan, and I would have agreed with you a few years ago. But I had also begun really reflecting on what we really need versus what we are told we need, and this year away was a good chance to test some of those so-called needs.

Food and clothing are, of course, the universal and every-day examples, but our daily habits are ripe with areas in which we can simplify. The Matrix, it turns out, is a more apt analogy for our lives than we often realize. How we choose to spend our concentration and effort (and consequently time) shapes the lives we end up leading. Speaking for myself, I’ve said “no” too infrequently, accepted society’s “must” rules too willingly, and generally signed up for too much too often. It is only in stepping out of it for a time that I have been able to ask myself what things deserved my effort and attention, and why. I wasn’t doing that nearly enough; there’s a reason we were so busy all the time.

On that dusk walk along the beach, we did happen to find something green glittering under a wave’s foam. When we picked it up, we found it was a piece of what looked like green glass, its edges worn smooth by the sand and other ocean forces.  I wondered about its former life, perhaps as a bottle of something. Regardless, now and here, it was a found trinket, beautiful in its simplicity, like this day had been.

"Universally" Speaking

What do you think when you think of Australia? I’m going to guess that your answers might include:

Sydney Opera House
The Outback
The Man from Snowy River (for the movie buffs)
Waltzing Matilda (for folk music buffs–and n.b., it’s not what you think it’s about)
Laid back Aussies with cool accents
World class swimmers
“No worries!”

None of these are wrong.
That list is, in fact, what I would have come up with four weeks ago. These things are but a small sampling of what make this country unique and wondrous, but they are not what living here is about. Since being here, in this characteristic, small-ish Australian city, I’m accepting what the first few novelty-filled weeks allowed me to forget temporarily. There are some things about human living that are seemingly universal. Mornings are spent bustling to get everyone dressed, fed, and off to school/work on time. People dash in and out of the grocery store between work and whatever their evening plans are. Young people fret about job prospects and dating prospects. Parents contemplate whether they have the desire–or the energy–to have one more child. They chide themselves for having scolded their kids so loudly that their neighbors might have heard (and judged them). Tired adults, young and old, look forward to sitting down in front of the telly in the evenings. People worry about their retirement accounts and tax rates. Radio talk shows debate how to solve the trending social problem.

More likely, many of these things are “universal” to middle class life in Western cultures–and the privileges that come with it. Just as I’m aware of those privileges, I’m aware that norms about how to raise children, how much free time you are supposed to have and how you’re supposed to spend it, how closely time is followed, etc. would look very different were we in a different country. This both comforts and unsettles me.

We are not in a different country though. Neither are we in the States, and many practices, while they might look similar on the surface to what’s in the States, often have very different underlying values, the subtleties which I am sure will be fodder for future entries. The beauty of this experience is that we have the opportunity to experience day to day living here, but with cultural norms and objects that are new to us.

Last week, we were told to stock our kitchens and check our torches (that’s “flashlights” for you American readers) in case the approaching cyclone, Cyclone Marcia, downed the power and flooded the roads leading here. (Snow storms would have been more familiar.) Unlike other cities north of us, we never did lose power or access to food, but we did lose the beach to the high waters!

The coming months will include, I hope, visits to see the Outback, and the real Snowy Mountains. And the Sydney Opera House. But for the moment, I am content to observe what’s immediately around me, sing, “Waltzing Matilda” on the way to school with the kids, and to take pleasure in the little things that make life here quite different from life in the States. Like the fact that our three year old has, at school, adopted the very Aussie habit of running around barefoot.

And yes, in case you were wondering, our kitchen is regularly stocked with vegemite. And better yet, crumpets and ginger beer.

What Are We To Make Of It?

So Australia may be far from a lot of you, but in spirit we are not so far away that we can buffer ourselves from the realities of this world. My email and newsfeed have shown in past days, over and over, the orange jumpsuits and faces of the 21 men who were beheaded by terrorists in Libya last week. I could not continue to talk about my own journey without acknowledging those whose earthly journey has just ended–and another one begun.

For those of you who may have missed this, all but one of these men, mostly young men in their 20s and 30s, had crossed the border into Libya from impoverished hometowns in Egypt so that they could work and send money home to their families (the last man, a Ghanaian Christian believed to be Matthew Arayiga, was also in the area for work). They were kidnapped by members of ISIS (aka Daesh) at the end of December and in early January. Reports of those who witnessed the kidnappings say these men were targeted because they were Christians (evidenced by crosses tattood on the inside of their wrists, a common practice among Copts). I can’t bring myself to watch the video, but the accounts I’ve heard of the justifications Daesh announce in it make no sense: it was in retaliation for the killing of Osama Bin Laden (as if these men had anything to do with it), it was because Egypt has been fighting the Daesh and these men were members of the hostile Egyptian church (“the nation of the cross”). What’s clear to me are a few things:
a) they were targeted because they were Christians, and because, with the exception of one, they were Egyptian Christians
b) their deaths, though untimely and brutal, demonstrate a faith that leaves me speechless, and
c) that those deaths are no less heartbreaking, regardless of what they demonstrate.

This story first caught my attention, of course, because I am a Copt. It also caught my attention because my faith in God and in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ are central to who I am. And it was central to who these men were, too. So central, that by all accounts, their last words as their lives were ending were prayers and pronouncements of that faith. All they would have had to do is renounce the God of Christianity and who they believe Jesus Christ to be, and these extremists would, by the dictates of their own laws, have had to spare these men’s lives.

Imagine for a moment being cut off from everyone and everything that can protect you, knowing that you will undoubtedly die unless you say some words. “They’re just words,” your sense of self-preservation might shout, “say them and take them back later when it’s safe to do so!” How strongly would you have to reject the idea that you could deny your Creator (Matthew 10:33)? What faith would it take to give these men the courage to go through with this? [What] do you believe so deeply that you would die rather than deny it? Could you do have done this? Could I?

Yet this story is also about these men who were human beings with loves and personalities and dreams and families. Because of this horrendous act, mothers and fathers will be grieving, wives will be widowed, brothers and sisters will grow old without their siblings, children will grow up without their fathers, friends without their lives’ companions. These men were in Libya to try to provide for their families, and the guilt and anger their families and friends must feel now–well, I won’t pretend to understand. My heart breaks and my minds goes numb just thinking about such sorrow.

It is, incidentally, this profound and senseless loss, this brutality, that has prompted such universal discussion about human rights. It’s too obvious to state that innocent people, civilians who have kept to their own matters, should not be killed by others trying to make a statement (political, religious, or otherwise). But we do not yet live in an ideal world, where we all live full and fulfilled lives.

We Christians talk a lot as about treating this life as only the beginning of a life of the spirit with God, after this earthly life is over. (The saying that we’re spiritual beings having a physical experience has always rung true for me.) We all know our days on this earth are numbered. Many of us forget that, attaching too much importance to careers, or health, or countless other attractions that this life can hold. These men, I’m sure, did not want to die with so much and so many to live for, but like so many Copts before them, they died knowing that this was not the end, and with this, I will try to be at peace.

Some of the sources I’ve relied on:
Article in the New York Times
Statement by Bishop Angelous
Of course, an online search will yield dozens more viewpoints.

No Immunity from the Quotidienne

If it is a virtual escape to the sunny tropics you have come for, read no further. A bubbly entry about mangoes and birds this is not.

Although we have seen rainbows on at least two occasions.

But enough of that.

We finished our second week and began our third still quite occupied with the tasks of settling in. I suspect moving is a headache no matter where you do it, but it’s been a while since we’ve done it. Our state of limbo has even extended to the kitchen. Here, though, I will brag that even with a spice rack consisting only of salt, pepper, cumin, and rosemary, hubs and I–ok, mostly hubs–have still been able to whip up some pretty good-looking meals.

Still, you know those weeks when it’s only Tuesday night and you are sure that Sunday was ages ago? It was one of those weeks. A lot happened: our application for a place to live was approved (yey!). I spent no less than five hours, most of it waiting, trying to set up phone/internet service for said place. Efficiency is under-rated in these parts, a fact that became painfully clear as I tried to occupy a three-year old at the same time. We began to look for a car, a process which included getting our Queensland drivers licenses.

A picture of some Australian bills, because I think they’re just so cool. How often do you see bills with windows in them? And it was a good way to spend the time while the license was being processed.

Despite all the mundaneness and headaches, there were a couple moments of transcendence. We attended church for the first time this weekend, and although there were probably no more than 7 or 8 families at this tiny outpost of a Coptic church, the visiting priest observed that 5 continents were represented. There were the Australians, of course, a German-Copt who’d moved to Australia several years ago, a member’s mother visiting from Egypt, an Orthodox Filipina, and us American Copts. If there’s one thing that makes my little heart happy, it’s multi-national gatherings.

Then, just last night, my husband called me outside to look at the night sky. Even with a little light pollution, it was absolutely stunning. Clusters of stars, some faint and blurred together, provided the backdrop for others, bright and innumerable. He pointed out Orion, and we might have seen the southern cross that appears on the Australian flag (we’ll need to employ the use of Google Sky to confirm this).

I am appreciating this new adventure, which is not to say that I don’t deeply appreciate the virtues of home and belonging. But it’s dawning on me that the line between the two is not as thick as I would have imagined. One evening, while I was burning dinner and the 3-year-old was screaming about some injustice I had apparently inflicted on her, it hit home that, yes, some aspects of our lives would remain exactly the same. Our children will unconsciously absorb much of their surroundings, true, but they will also be kids: kids who will test the boundaries their parents set for them, who need their parents’ patience, and who will look to us to help interpret the world around them and what they are to do in it. They will admire the new animals and plants in this new place . . .


. . . but they will not spend the energy that I am spending to try to analyse things like cultural norms. For the kids, this chapter will not be about experiencing a different culture. It will just be what it is. And perhaps, if only for now, that is what I too should let these early days be: the wonder and the mundane mixed in together, toddler tantrums and all.