Editor’s Note: The following piece is an excerpt from Lisa McKay’s memoir, Love at the Speed of Email. She first shared it on A Life Overseas many years ago, back in March of 2013. But many of our readers weren’t around then, and I love this story so much that I asked her if we could bring it out of the archives and share it with everyone again. ~Elizabeth Trotter
Love At The Speed Of Email is a memoir – the story of how I met my husband while he was in Papua New Guinea working for a humanitarian organization and I was in Los Angeles working as a stress management trainer. It’s more than a love story, though. It’s a recounting of my struggle to find an answer to the question, “Where’s home?” after being raised in five different countries and then embracing a career that kept me perpetually on the move. I suspect that this struggle to define home is one that those of you who were raised as third culture kids (or who are raising global nomads yourselves) will be all too familiar with.
The section I’m sharing comes from a chapter called Airports and Bookstores. I was twenty-six years old, in Hawaii, and having the time of my life at the first creative writing workshop I’d ever attended when I realized for the first time that I might have a real problem when it came to this concept of home . . .
Borrowing inspiration from the tale of the prodigal son in the Bible, our instructors had told us to write a “coming home” story. We should, we were told, write the prodigal who was us as an adult, coming home to ourselves as a child.
“Pick the clearest recollection you have of home and use that,” they said.
Everyone else reached for a pen or a laptop. I just sat there.
I was still sitting there ten minutes later.
Eventually I went up to the front of the room, to the giant leather-bound book of synonyms that was sitting on a podium, looked up home and wrote down these words: Birthplace. Stability. Dwelling. Hearth. Hearthstone. Refuge. Shelter. Haven. Sanctum.
I went back to my seat and stared past the book of synonyms, past the palm trees standing still under a blanket of midday heat, and out into the hazy blue of an ocean that promised a horizon it never quite delivered.
The list didn’t seem to help much.
Birthplace conjured Vancouver, a city I’d visited only twice, briefly, since we’d left when I was one.
Stability then. Unlike my parents’, this was not a word that could be applied to my childhood. In stark contrast with their agrarian upbringing, I’d spent an awful lot of my time in airports.
Maybe that was it, I thought, wondering whether the sudden spark I felt at the word airport was a glimmer of inspiration or merely desperation.
There was no denying that as a child I’d thought there was a lot of fun to be had in and around airports. More than one home movie shows me and my sister, Michelle, arranging our stuffed animals and secondhand Barbies in symmetrical rows and lecturing them severely about seat belts and tray tables before offering to serve them drinks. When we were actually in airports, we spent many happy hours collecting luggage carts and returning them to the distribution stands in order to pocket the deposit. We were always very disappointed to find ourselves in those boring socialist airports with free trolleys.
In Hawaii, I was tempted to start writing my story about home but didn’t.
“Your clearest memories of home as a child cannot possibly be in an airport,” I scolded myself, still staring past my laptop and out to the white-laced toss and chop of cerulean. “Home is not a topic that deserves flippancy. Work harder. . . . What about dwellings and hearths?”
That year my parents were living in the Philippines. My brother was in Sydney. My sister was in Washington, D.C. The bed I could legitimately call mine resided in Indiana. I had lived none of these places except D.C. as a child, and they were such awkward, lonely years that the thought of going back, even in a story, made me squirm. We lived in Washington, D.C., for three and a half years before moving to Zimbabwe, and what I remember most clearly about that time is that I spent much of it reading.
I’ve been in love with reading since before I can remember. Our family photo albums are peppered with photos of me curled up with books – in huts in Bangladesh, on trains in Europe, in the backseat of our car in Zimbabwe.
I can’t remember my parents reading to us before bed, although they swear they often did – sweet tales about poky puppies and confused baby birds looking for their mothers.
“You were insatiable,” Mum said when I asked her about this once. “No matter how many times I read you a book, you always wanted more.”
“Awwww,” I said, envisioning long rainy afternoons curled up with my mother while she read to me. “You must have spent hours reading to me.”
“I did,” my mother said in a tone that let me know she fully expects me to return the favor one day. “But it was never enough. So I taped myself.”
“What?” I asked.
“I got a tape recorder,” she said. “I recorded myself reading a story – I even put these cute little chimes in there so you’d know when to turn the page. Then, sometimes, I sat you down with the tapes.”
“Nice,” I said in a way that let her know that I didn’t think this practice would get her nominated for the motherly hall of fame.
“You loved it,” she said, completely uncowed. “Plus, I needed a break every now and then. You were exhausting. You never stopped asking questions. You asked thirty-seven questions once during a half-hour episode of Lassie. I counted.”
I can’t remember any of this. My earliest memories of reading are solitary, sweaty ones. They are of lying on the cool marble floor of our house in Bangladesh, book in hand, an overhead fan gently stirring the dense heat while I chipped away at frozen applesauce in a small plastic container. But it’s when we moved from Bangladesh to the States when I was nine that my memories of books, just like childhood itself, become clearer.
Of all the moves I’ve made in my life, this was one of the most traumatic. Abruptly encountering the world of the very wealthy after two years of living cheek by jowl with the world of the very poor, I discovered that I didn’t fit readily into either world. My fourth grade classmates in Washington, D.C., had no framework for understanding where I had been for the last two years – what it was like to ride to church in a rickshaw pulled by a skinny man on a bicycle, to make a game out of pulling three-inch-long cockroaches out of the sink drain while brushing your teeth at night, or to gaze from the windows of your school bus at other children picking through the corner garbage dumps.
I, in turn, lacked the inclination to rapidly absorb and adopt the rules of this new world, a world where your grasp on preteen fashion, pop culture, and boys all mattered terribly. Possibly I could have compensated for my almost total lack of knowledge in these key areas with lashings of gregarious charm, but at nine I lacked that, too. I was not what you would call a sunny child.
So I read instead. I read desperately.
I read pretty much anything I could get my hands on. One of the few good things I could see about living in the States was the ready availability of books. Some weekends Mum and Dad would take us to the local library’s used book sale. Books were a quarter each. I had a cardboard box and carte blanche. On those Saturday mornings I was in heaven.
Like many kids, I suspect, I was drawn to stories of outsiders or children persevering against all odds in the face of hardship. I devoured all of C.S. Lewis’ stories of Narnia and adored the novels of Frances Hodgson Burnett, especially the ones featuring little girls who were raised in India before being exiled to face great hardship in Britain. But I also strayed into more adult territory. I trolled our bookshelves and the bookshelves of family friends, and those bookshelves were gold mines for stories about everything from religious persecution to murder, rape, civil war, child brides, and honor killing.
In retrospect, even at eleven I wasn’t reading largely for pleasant diversion, for fun, for the literary equivalent of eating ice cream in the middle of the day. I was extreme-reading – pushing boundaries – looking to be shocked, scared, thrilled, and taught. I was reading to try to figure out how to make sense of pain.
It is entirely possible that had we remained in Australia throughout my childhood, I would still have spent the majority of these preteen years feeling isolated and misunderstood. After all, in the midst of our mobility I never doubted my parents’ love for me or for each other, but this did not forestall an essential loneliness that was very deeply felt. I suspect that I would still have grown into someone who feels compelled to explore the juxtaposition of shadow and light, someone who is drawn to discover what lies in the dark of life and of ourselves. But I also suspect that the shocking extremes presented by life in Bangladesh and America propelled me down this path earlier, and farther, than I may naturally have ventured.
It was largely books that were my early companions on this journey. They were stories of poverty and struggle, injustice and abuse, violence and debauchery, yes. But they were also threaded through with honor and courage, sacrifice and discipline, character and hope.
Many people seem to view “real life” as the gold standard by which to interpret stories, but I don’t think that does novels justice. For me, at least, the relationship between the real and fictional worlds was reciprocal. These books named emotions, pointed to virtue and vice, and led me into a deeper understanding of things I had already witnessed and experienced myself. They also let me try on, like a child playing dress-up, experiences and notions new to me. They acted as maps, mirrors, and magnifying glasses.
In those lonely childhood years, books also provided refuge. They were havens and sanctums.
Did that make them home?
When the writing exercise ended after half an hour and we were invited to share, I’d come up with only two ideas.
Set the scene in a bookstore. Or set it in an airport.
I hadn’t written a single word.