Strawberries and the In Between

I live in a world where it is possible for strawberries to occupy space in my refrigerator year round. That statement may not seem remarkable, maybe even a little mundane. Because here in America, even Aldi continuously keeps strawberries by the carton-full stocked on their shelves. But I have not always lived in this pocket of the world. I have not always had an Aldi down the street. Or refrigeration even.  The funny thing is that even though that was only a couple of years in my past, I am prone to forget.  But not today.

As I stand in my sunny American kitchen, mundane Costco-sized cartons of strawberries in each of my hands (because, well, refrigeration), an unexpected memory slams into me.  My mind transports me to another kitchen, clutching another carton in my hands.  I’m standing in a desert land in North Africa, in the dusty little detached kitchen behind my house.  I am holding a small gray cooler bag.  The cooler bag contains a carton.  In this carton are tiny strawberries.  In my eyes are tears.  It has been months, probably more than a dozen, since I’ve tasted a strawberry. A year of months since this juicy red goodness has dribbled down the chins of my three little ones.  My kids are avid consumers of mangoes, but I’m not certain they even remember what a strawberry is. They don’t grow in our country-of-residence.  As I reach down to gently lift the carton and its precious cargo out of the cooler bag, gratitude runs through me like a current.  I’m charged with the electricity of anticipation, longing for a taste of something I didn’t even know I wanted so badly until it was within reach.  The sight, the smell of these tiny Ethiopian-grown strawberries, hand delivered by visiting friends, awakens something forgotten in me.  The parts of me I suppressed in my quest to wholeheartedly embrace my new culture and way of life bubble to the surface. In this moment, I am fully awake to who I am, I am fully seen.

As I savor the taste and smell of the berries, their real gift to me is an affirmation of all that I am, all my contradictions. An American living in North Africa. Passionate about both mangoes and strawberries. Lover of Jesus and friend to Muslims.  I know as much about surviving snowy northwest Ohio winters as about surviving hot season in the Sahel.  I’ve chosen a life surrounded by sand, but moments by water still restore me in a way unmatched by other places.  I know that Coca-cola in a reusable glass bottle tastes infinitely better than any other bottling method.  Both English and Arabic float through my nightly dreams. 

These parts of me often feel at war with each other. They create tension within me. One moment, I want to dive deep into my host culture, immersing myself in the new and different.  The next moment, all I want to do is retreat into my house, binge watch Parks and Recreation and eat Oreos, clinging tightly to what is familiar. And yet, in the mess and honesty of conflicting emotions, there are moments when the parts sing in harmony.     

Driving remote desert paths, my husband and I belting out songs with the Beastie Boys, our kids asleep in the backseat.    

Sharing a deep conversation and a cup of tea with a national friend in my second language.

Gazing in wonder at the stars with my kids, the Milky Way brilliantly marching across the desert sky, compelling us to observe this ritual every night.

Savoring these tiny strawberries that unexpectedly remind me of who I am, bringing all my parts into harmony.

Here back in my passport country, the tension still exists. Here my other-ness continues to confront me in unexpected ways. Here a carton of strawberries still has the power to makes me weep, both in gratitude for their accessibility and in grief for their mundane-ness. I am a walking paradox. I belong neither here nor there, but somewhere in between.