Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Importance of Staying In Touch


I recently took a brief holiday to the US to see my kids. When I got back to Egypt, I arrived to find my niece from California, along with her five year old daughter, a fellow teacher, and ten high school students, happily installed at an alternative school not far from the farm where they would be staying for a two week visit to Egypt as a part of their school program. I also had an old friend from New Zealand who came to think out some major life decisions at the farm and within a couple of days, another friend and her daughter from California had arrived via Luxor. If I'd been rested after two weeks of bouncing between Boston and New York, a matter of conjecture only since I certainly wasn't after a flight home on a plane carrying every small child in the US with an Egyptian grandparent to visit over the summer, I wasn't rested once I got home. My animals apparently miss me a bit when I'm gone and the greeting from the dog pack was riotous to say the least, but it was later in the evening that I noticed a real difference. When I sat down...and later when I went to bed...I found that all the dogs, even the big ones, had to sit or lie close enough to me to touch me. With temperatures during the day of over 90 F/38 C, this could get to be a burden. Night time temperatures in the high 70's/high 20's, made things a bit better but I didn't get much sleep the first few nights. It was as if the dogs needed to reassure themselves that I wasn't going to vanish again while they were sleeping. Silly dogs...but are they?

When I spent some time talking to my niece and catching up on family happenings, I was astonished to find that I'd missed some pretty important events abroad. Living on the opposite side of the globe, more or less, from part of my family and a minimum of 11 hours flying time from the kids, I rely on internet communications a lot. Emails, chat, Skype, even Facebook are all helpful in keeping up with family and friends who are wandering the globe, but in the end, we only know what others tell us about their lives, and they only know what we are willing to disclose. That can be a problem. "Oh, I didn't want to worry you." "Well, I figured that it would blow over." How many times have we all used this excuse as a reason to keep our problems to ourselves? We all do it. We share the good times and hide the bad ones, but at what cost?

When my husband died, I soldiered on. I sat through years of horribly confusing negotiations, miserable meetings, and generally disabling work in fields that I really had no experience with. It was not fun. Without a group of women friends who gathered around me, held me as I cried, and encouraged me when I wanted to just give up and run away, I would never have made it. Ladies, I salute you and I would never have survived without you. A core group were also going through some pretty gut-wrenching life changes...divorces, separations, career issues...and we would meet about weekly for a meal and an exchange of woes. How depressing...but not really...and how therapeutic. An Irish grad student friend of mine used to tell me, while we were suffering from being the first major influx of women grad students in our department in Canada with all the weirdness that entailed, that a problem shared is a problem halved. It isn't really that other people are going to solve the problem for you as it is that simply carrying the burden of our problem alone adds to its weight.

So the dumb animals aren't so dumb at all. They understand the need to be with the ones that they care about even if they can't speak in words. Years and years ago, AT&T, the American telephone company ran an ad campaign to boost long distance calling (I'm not so naive as to think that they approached it as a public service!) that featured someone saying "Reach out and touch someone." It's good advice. And don't only share the good news. It really is okay to say, "I know you can't do anything about this, but just knowing that someone is thinking about it with me helps...." And if you are on the receiving end, know that hearing about a problem doesn't necessarily mean that you have to rush out to slay a dragon. Sometimes just swatting a fly will do.
Oh, and the dogs? It only took a few days of sitting on me for them to decide that I'd returned for the duration and to go back to giving me space to breathe...thank heaven.

copyright 2008 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

5 comments:

Dina said...

"A problem shared is a problem halved." I like that. Will have to remember it. Thanks for sharing all this.

Akinoluna said...

Goofy dogs! :-)

j said...

It's tough splitting the family up like that. NYC and Cairo are locuses for my immediate family as well as my sister and I (same ages as your children) are based here but our mother, step-father and little sister remain in cairo. i guess the flip side to the obvious problems that introduces is that (as is implicit in your article) we get an extra lesson in the value of family relationships. A lesson that teaches us that they can not be taken for granted for they aren't a "given" even in the case of family. A lesson that tells you we must work for it, make the effort to call, to write to save up so we can visit. When i see how more tightly (geographically) knit parts of my and others' families treat each other sometimes i feel that this is not a trivial lesson to learn.

However, although the constant battle of keeping in touch inherently entails at least some degree of loneliness and a sense of loss and although physical distance significantly aggravates the problem we continue to make the decision to separate ourselves from our loved ones again and again. Why is that?

Is it because these decisions to move are made before the lesson is learnt? Doubtful. Though you left the country of your birth did you not support your childrens' choice to leave Cairo (and you)? My mother (who has moved far from her origins) definitely did as the the families of most of our friends.

Instead I think that although maintaining a healthy relationship with loved ones is important to our well being we never the less feel there to be other equally (more?) important factors to our happiness. At the very least pursuing those other goals trumps avoiding the difficulties introduced by physical separation...

j said...

It's tough splitting the family up like that. NYC and Cairo are locuses for my immediate family as well as my sister and I (same ages as your children) are based here but our mother, step-father and little sister remain in cairo. i guess the flip side to the obvious problems that introduces is that (as is implicit in your article) we get an extra lesson in the value of relationships. A lesson that teaches us that they can not be taken for granted for they aren't a "given" even in the case of family. A lesson that tells you we must work for it, make the effort to call, to write to save up so we can visit. When i see how more tightly (geographically) knit parts of my and others' families treat each other i sometimes feel that this is not a trivial lesson to learn.

However, although the constant battle of keeping in touch inherently entails at least some degree of loneliness and a sense of loss we continue to make the decision to separate ourselves from our loved ones again and again. Why is that? What is worth those problems to us?

Is it because these decisions to move are made before the lesson is learnt? Doubtful. Though you left the country of your birth did you not support your childrens' choice to leave Cairo (and you) upon (school) graduation? My mother (who has moved far from her origins) definitely did. And I feel I might do the same with my children come the day...

Instead I think that although maintaining a healthy relationship with loved ones is important to our well being we never the less feel there to be other equally (more?) important factors to our happiness. At the very least pursuing those other goals trumps avoiding the complications introduced by physical separation.

In short: Yes, staying in touch is important. But there seem to be other conflicting goals we find at least as vital.

Maryanne Stroud Gabbani said...

I believe that we all have times in our lives for exploration and adventure when we need to try those wings that parents help us to grow. When I was about 21 I moved to Canada to go to university and chose to "stay" there, taking Canadian citizenship. I'm the only Canadian in my family. My husband also did the same at about the same age. This is the best time for adventures, in your twenties. You are young enough to handle the hardships and getting old and wise enough to learn, hopefully. Now I feel that I have a place where I want to be for the rest of my life, which at 60 I take a day at a time, and happily, my children like to come back to see me every so often. It's like the old Byrds'song from the 60's..."To everything there is a season...and a time to every purpose under heaven".