I tried on hope. I tried on fearless hope. And for a few days I felt like the name-it-claim-it-Oprah’s-secret kind of people might really have something, like the send-it-out-to-the-universe people might be right. I was high on hope. I thought maybe I’d been missing something essential in my faith for decades and now, look, I was unstoppable and sure and able because I wore hope. Not long ago, my friend sent me one of those daily affirmation emails that landed in her inbox. The message was to change your narrative. I’d been thinking about that in light of faith, reminding myself of who I am in Christ. We tell ourselves a lot of stories about what we can or can’t do, about what we should or shouldn’t want. We need to learn true stories.
So I tried on hope. I have this faith that says I can do all things in Christ. I have this faith sewed up with hope and trust. But for years I worked hope in private, praying for healing or joy or contentment in my own body and mind. And when I admitted hope to others, I couched assurance in maybe later or probably not. Like I know it’s a long shot to write a book in Budapest or run a hundred miles or climb Kilimanjaro but I still hope I do.
Maybe I confuse hope and dream. A dream is like spun sugar. Even dark dreams are made of spindly wisps. But hope is a cinder block. Hope has weight and sharp corners. Your arms get tired and scraped carrying hope around. That’s it then. Hope isn’t a fuzzy shawl that imbues you with certainty. Hope is a cinder block that cuts into your palms. True story: hope is hard to carry. I must be doing it wrong.
I want to live in Nairobi. This desire surprised me a year ago. We visited my brother and his family and all I could see was green trees and red clay. My sister-in-law took us to an outdoor market where vendors expected bartering but charged a Western price anyway. I ran the hills each morning, up and down quiet streets lined with gated properties. I found alleyways and narrow paths cutting through fields. When we drove out of Nairobi, I imagined us in our own boxy jeep exploring the plains. I have this spun sugar dream of a linen shirt, kicked off hiking boots and a cold beer. I have this spun sugar dream of running to the edge of quiet and standing very still under sky unrolled by God. I have this spun sugar dream of my kids climbing backyard trees, eating thick skinned fruit.
I made Nairobi tangible. So when Justin and I decided this is our last year in Kuwait, I saw us going to Nairobi. I saw my kids growing up with cousins. I saw weekend morning coffee with a splash of Baileys. I saw Justin biking to work. This is about the time I decided to try on a fanatic brand of hope, making Nairobi something that just had to happen because it had to happen because I was hoping hard enough that this city was our next home. And I thought God had to give me this. I wasn’t asking for France or Argentina. I was asking for a country with fire ants and the nearby threat of al-Shabaab.
We had an opportunity. Our first interview in eight years. Later, I’d think how underwhelming we were, lacking concision and polish. Later, I’d cry because I supposed I’d wanted this place too much.
We still might move to Nairobi. We might move to Delhi or Budapest or Bogota or Lima or Cape Town or Zurich. We might move anywhere in the world. We might move to my parents’ town, live rent free for a few wallowing months. This is how it goes for international teachers. There is weird freedom and risk in deciding to finish your contract in one country and move to another. It isn’t like you can say you’re going to Switzerland. You don’t know if there are jobs in Switzerland or what the visa requirement is for a nonworking spouse if only one job is available. You don’t know what you’ll do if the kids’ tuition isn’t fully covered. So when we decided to make this our last year in Kuwait, we knew better than to say we were moving to Switzerland.
But I couldn’t help it. I saw us in Nairobi. I saw us in Budapest. Justin saw us in Bogota. So we had to talk.
There are a couple of ways to talk about where you want to go next. One, name what you’re looking for. Our list looks like this: running, walking, biking outside; green space, parks nearby; beer, wine and Baileys; service learning program; teaching schedule of 5 of 8; maybe IB. We want a daily lifestyle shift. We want a school that values academics and practical, serving compassion. Second way you can talk about where you want to go is to say where you don’t want to go. That list is short for us: we don’t want to stay in the region and we aren’t that interested in Asia.
We signed up with Search Associates and scrolled through the first list of available jobs. China, China, China, China, China. Our friends moved back to China a year ago and love it. Another friend is starting her first year in Shanghai and wrote to tell me she feels physically, emotionally and spiritually healthier. But I look at China, China, China and see restricted speech, VPNs and smog. My friend sends a picture of a bamboo forest but I still don’t open the job postings.
Another friend told us about the Global Recruitment Collaborative, a pared down version of other international teaching recruitment services. “Go to the Dubai fair,” he said. We looked at the list of GRC schools attending. No Nairobi. No Budapest. No Bogota. We decided to pass. The weekend before the fair, I checked the list again. Nairobi. Okay. We registered with GRC, booked flights and hotel, requested a day off. All week we said this is going to be a fun weekend. Let’s have fun this weekend. We’ll have a fun time. Which meant browsing books at Kinokuniya, having beer with dinner, finishing a conversation. And in between, talking with a couple of schools.
Here’s the thing about job fairs. Schools offer jobs. Of course that’s why you go. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you have two or three offers or promises of second or third interviews by the end of the weekend. But between the welcome and the closing, you’re on a ride. You go up, you go down, you see your feet fifty feet off the ground. A job offer plants your feet. You go to a quiet corner of the hotel lobby or retreat to your room, maybe Skype with your parents or make a pro/con list or click through the school’s online photos or pray. Early in the recruiting season, job offers might stay for a few weeks. By January and February fairs, you might get half a day before the fair ends. If your answer is no, the school wants to be able to offer a contract to their next candidate.
But here’s another thing about job fairs. Not everyone gets a job. We were going to GRC to meet with a couple of schools. Maybe consciously keeping our expectations low because it seemed too early for a job offer when most administrators didn’t yet have complete list of available positions. A lot of interviews were for tentative openings.
One more thing about job fairs. The whole weekend is a shuffle of want, need, expectation. Fairs open with a speaker welcoming candidates and schools before interview sign-ups begin. Each school gets a table in the banquet hall and candidates weave through the rows, looking for the International School of My Dreams but finding the International School of Maybe Here along the way. The GRC fair opened with an announcement of how many candidates were attending and how many positions were open and the cry that “There’s a job for everyone!” which is just false because the numbers don’t match qualifications which don’t match whether you really want to move to Turkey right now. Even so, that moment was the first I thought, maybe it goes easy.
Maybe we just get a job. The woman standing next to me was from Nairobi. I thought maybe she’d be my colleague next year. I hugged my cinder block of hope. I was sure this could be easy. I looked at my husband. His forehead was beaded with sweat. The banquet hall doors opened and teachers fanned out to find school tables, shake hands, set up interviews. “Justin,” I said, “Wait.” He was already pressing ahead, eyes on the Nairobi table. He turned to me. “Stop,” I said, “You need to slow down.” He listened, wiped his forehead with a tissue. “I don’t know why I’m sweating,” he said. “It’s okay,” I said.
But it wasn’t totally okay. We’d spent all week saying we’d have fun in Dubai, but underneath talk of fun, unexpected strong hope. And now at the doors of the banquet hall – it is difficult to explain what it feels like, charged with hope, my usual voice cautioning to put the cinder block down, pick up the empty shoe box of realistic options. But here’s hope cutting into my palms saying, this is a realistic option. I want hope more. We go in, find the Nairobi table. Waiting in line, the couple behind us are also math and English teachers and one of them jokes, “We’re the competition.” I don’t know what to say so I don’t say anything. We arrange an interview.
And then we wandered. We found the Delhi table. We met an old colleague and asked what it’s like to live in Ethiopia. I stopped by a table to tell the recruiter I watched his school’s video and love their glass-wall classrooms with common space for collaboration. He told me he had only one job available. I said okay. We looked around. We talked about southwestern Wisconsin with a recruiter from Zurich. A few tables had crowds all morning. It’s like that at every fair. I remember going to the UNI fair to find our first overseas job and seeing the long lines at European tables. Justin and I didn’t even try for an interview with Brussels then. We booked a chat with Riyadh instead. This time at GRC, the crowd wants Singapore, Dubai, Nairobi.
I wavered a little, with only two interviews scheduled. I thought maybe we should see what Cambodia had to offer. But the real temptation was to line up interviews with other Middle Eastern schools. We know the region. We’ve heard the reputations. We stood surrounded by schools from UAE, Saudi and Qatar and reminded each other we’re leaving the region. Why interview for a forty thousand dollar salary in a new desert? Because it’s here now.
This is part of the job fair experience too. Remember that shuffle of want, need, expectation. You find yourself compromising what you most hoped for because the recruiter from Manila is a great conversationalist and the school looks terrific too. You find yourself re-imagining next year, replacing ski slopes with banana plantations.
I heard myself say I’d love to teach middle school. Which is a lie.
I am not as open to change as I thought. I still want Nairobi, even after our underwhelming interview. We sat on a couch and wandered our way to answers. After, Justin said it wasn’t that bad and I said it wasn’t that bad and we walked back to our hotel in silence. Once we were in our room, I sat on the sofa and cried. Like, ugly cried because our interview might not have been bad but it hadn’t been sparkly either and this cinder block of hope I’d been hauling around for a week was suddenly very, very heavy and it was so unfair to blow it on a so-so interview, our first interview in eight years! We should have practiced! We should have booked an interview with Doha just to shake first nerves out. I cried because it hurt to hope and lose.
I thought I was open. I cried about that. I thought I wanted a good thing. I cried about that. I get sad at the state of my heart, junk that comes up when pressed in a situation or emotion. I ask why. I see why. I cried, sure we’d lost a chance at this great school in Nairobi, but more sure I’d mistaken hope for certain direction, more sure I’d made up the voice of God saying “Go.” All I wanted, I said to Justin, was to follow God in this decision. After the many decisions I’d made on practicality or others’ expectations for me, I want this next move to be clearly directed. Give me a place, I’d prayed for months after we decided to leave Kuwait. Tell me a place.
But in the days after the GRC fair, I thought about that “Go” I heard. It wasn’t a go to Nairobi and prosper mightily. Nothing like that. It was go to the fair. And so we went. I thought obeying go would clear a straight path to Nairobi and weekend barbecues with my brother and his family. But maybe go cleared a path to the heart of our search for our next place, answering what we know but don’t want to say.
We can live anywhere. We can grow anywhere. I can exercise my faith in the desert or forest. Our family can love one another in mountains or city streets. During our interview with the recruiter from Delhi, I said I already know I can learn to love a place because that’s what I’ve done in Kuwait. I can do that again. I can land in a country and collect our baggage and walk into a new apartment, paint the walls, let the kids pick their furniture, find a local café, learn a new grocery store, get used to the street smells, feel outside the norm, see familiar injustices colored a new shade, discover a local pastry. I can do all of that, anywhere. I just don’t want to.
Today I was talking with another friend about how I’m still sorting out this experience. Not the fair so much as what it was like to hope when I’m more inclined to suppose everything turns out merely okay. I don’t pray for healing like God’s already answered. I pray like I know God can but probably won’t find my tight hip a necessary expenditure of Christ’s shed blood. I pray questioning my motive as words form on my lips. Which is why I interrupt myself and say to God, You know my heart better than I do. Hoping for something specific as a school in Nairobi isn’t wrong but dig a little and I’ll show you I want to move to a country you’ll envy because this is my eighth year in a land no one seems to envy unless it’s for the luxury malls and second locations of LA restaurants. After our interview, I sat on the couch because maybe that secret cost us, because I can’t just have an uncomplicated, pure motive for moving to a lush, green home.
You want to know where we are now. The next morning, before we headed to our interview with Delhi, Justin and I laid on the bed listening to a sermon about waiting, a timely up-next in my podcast queue. Waiting as desperate and expectant. Desperate because we can’t cross this wide, swift river to the promised land all by ourselves. We need God. Okay. And expectant because God is good. I lay there crying again because of course I’m desperate. We can do a lot without God. But we are choosing to seek God in this decision and waiting is uncomfortable obedience. I lay there crying because I want to know what to expect. What promised land is on the other side of this wide, swift river? I can’t see. That’s where I am. I don’t know where Justin is. It’d be easy for us to rely on practicality. Maybe we do. It’s exhausting to hope. It’s exhausting to wait. I don’t know if we hold our nerve yet. I don’t know if we get desperate enough to abandon all spun sugar dreams and lay at the feet of God and say, “Anywhere. We will go anywhere.” And then, I don’t know if we get quiet enough to hear or if we let fear hum like white noise, canceling the Spirit’s voice so we miss it when He says, “Go.” I don’t know yet, what happens.