A Hummingbird Life
Unexpectedly, but very clearly, I heard myself thinking, “I know what the next 20 years of my life will be like.” Immediately, and also very clearly, I heard, “But I don’t want to know what the next 20 years of my life will be like.” That realization didn’t make much sense to me since I was living the life I had always wanted to live. I was in my mid-30s, happily married to my high school sweetheart, full time mom to a healthy son, doing meaningful volunteer work, and all was well – wasn’t it?
I had lived a mostly traditional lifestyle, except for consciously choosing to adopt rather than having a biological child. I had been a foster care social worker, so it made more sense to me to take a child without a family rather than create another child. We were white, and our son was black. We were a somewhat unusual family, but a happy one.
About the only thing my husband and I disagreed about was how long to go away on vacations. I loved traveling in a way he didn’t. I wanted to go longer, and farther away. While my son was still a toddler, although I had no intention of ever doing so, I signed up for a community college short course called “Traveling Alone As A Woman.” What I remembered most from that short course was seeing a woman who had done such a thing. A visiting guest from Israel casually mentioned that it was possible to be a volunteer on a kibbutz in Israel. I felt a shiver of excitement.
Something deep, powerful, and unrelenting inside kept pushing me out of the cozy confines of the life my husband and I had created together until, by the age of 37, I had destroyed what I had spent so many years building. Our 12-year-old son, unable to feel secure with the mother I had become, chose to stay with his dad when I moved away. In the summer break from getting a Master’s degree in Social Work, I finally got to see Israel for the first time as a volunteer on a kibbutz. I was the oldest volunteer there. In 1983, at 40, I started life as an immigrant in a new land, with a new language to learn, and a new culture to decipher.
I also had chosen a new name for myself – one I fashioned from a Swahili word that incorporated my pain at leaving the husband I loved, and my hope for the future. Unfortunately, I found out when I moved to Israel that it was, coincidentally, a very bad word in Hebrew.
Five years later, when my savings were down to $5,000, I thought, “I need to go around the world before I run out of money.” Simple curiosity made China a priority. What I didn’t expect was that China’s complicated society would intrigue and magnetize me for the rest of my life.
I found that the hummingbird and I shared several characteristics. We both plant our feet firmly in mid-air, hover, drink deeply, and then flit away. We are very independent creatures who live life quickly and intensely. If someone tries to hold us, we will die. But we can fly backwards as well as forwards at will.
I was content and, indeed, often elated living as a hummingbird throughout the world for over 16 years. Continuous new experiences challenged me. Although there were many discomforts and inconveniences, especially in third world China, I knew I tired of the “known” much more than the “unknown.” From my first teaching job in China, found by knocking on doors and saying, “Hi, I’d like to teach English,” I knew I’d found my happiest career.
My journeys were geographical, but also explorations into deeply personal, emotional, and cultural dimensions. There were many truly magical moments of serendipity along the way, as well as pure luck. I am grateful I found what my soul craved. I don’t have to say, “I wish I had ..”
I discovered the parts that made me whole – my personality was American, my homeland was Israel, my heart was in China, and my spirit was in Bali. I turned into a sculptor of sorts, able to carve out niches for myself wherever I went. I was at home being housemother in an Israeli boarding school to newly arrived Ethiopian Jewish teenage immigrants, then living and working in an Israeli-Arab town trying to promote mutual respect between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews. I loved the adventure of finding teaching jobs in China, Taiwan, Macau, Bali, and Korea that allowed me inside the cultures.
From inside China, I saw the tumultuous changes in the lives of my students over more than two decades. By continually nurturing the relationships I made with my students through frequent letters and visits, I stayed in their lives and they remain my friends today. Six of my students asked me to be the honorary grandmother to their children. Being in their children’s lives as they grow up has been a continuing joy in my life.
The journals I kept as my constant traveling companions turned into my first book, “Memoirs of a Middle-aged Hummingbird,” published in 2006. The book is the link with that life that can never die.
My son never forgave me for leaving the family, and often refused any contact with me. However, he did re-establish contact when he knew he was dying of AIDS. He died in 2003. I recently published “Out of Step: A Diary To My Dead Son.” I have to live with a lingering guilt for having left my husband and son, but my nomadic years traveling solo to unusual nooks and crannies in the world were undoubtedly the most fulfilling years of my life.
I am now a more settled senior hummingbird who only sometimes wanders, still wonders, and often writes.
SUELLEN ZIMA: One lucky Friday the 13th began the unusual journeys of my life as wife, mother, social worker, world explorer, English teacher, and author. My journals captured the details of my travels, published in “Memoirs of a Middle-aged Hummingbird.”
The need to make my dead son come more alive to me became a diary. “Out of Step: A Diary To My Dead Son,” attempts to repair our damaged relationship by interweaving past and present, interracial adoption in the 1970s, divorce and guilt, HIV-AIDS, homosexuality, and one mother-son relationship.
I continue to wander, wonder, and blog as The Senior Hummingbird. You can find both books on Suellen’s Website.
SONIA MARSH SAYS: Suellen, I think you are such a courageous person to share your story and the guilt of “abandoning” your family as well as being true to yourself. I understand your “hummingbird” desires to explore and experience as much as you can in life. I hope to see you at our September 26th event and meet Marybeth Bond, the “Gutsy Traveler.”
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Janet Givens is our first “My Gutsy Story®” for the month of August.