Our Tribal Elders, the Integration of Norma McCaig
Where did the term Global Nomad come from and what inspired the woman who coined it? I never knew, until reading this lovely tribute to Norma McCaig.
Continuing today with part 5 in Our Tribal Elders by Paul Asbury Seaman. Paul attended Murree Christian School in Pakistan. He currently lives in the Bay Area, California with his wife Catherine. He has published several articles about the impact of growing up overseas as well as a memoir, Paper Airplanes in the Himalayas: The Unfinished Path Home (West and the Wider World)
Integration… Norma McCaig (1945-2008)
The North, at the top of the medicine wheel, represents the Elder stage of life, coming fully into our own in both responsibility and self-expression. It is the embodiment of mindful stewardship: having the ability to effectively apply our knowledge and resources for the greater good. It is also the place where we come to terms with death—the ultimate form of self-acceptance.
Norma Marie McCaig was born in Teaneck, New Jersey. Her father was an executive with an international pharmaceutical company and when she was two years old the family moved to the Philippines, where Norma attended the American School in Manila. When she was fourteen her parents moved to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Norma spent a year and a half at Kodaikanal International School, a missionary boarding school in South India; she then went back to the Philippines to graduate from high school in 1963. Her brother Doug, several years older than Norma, had already returned to the United States and her parents were now living in Hong Kong.
McCaig’s first significant job after college was with the Florence Crittenton Home for Unwed Mothers in Washington, D.C. But it was the Meridian International Center, also in Washington, that became the foundation for Norma’s life mission. The Meridian Center is a private not-for-profit institution dedicated to international collaboration and cultural understanding. Among other activities, it manages the U.S. State Department’s professional exchange programs. At the Meridian House McCaig worked as Home Hospitality Coordinator, providing part of the orientation for foreign students and government employees coming to live in the United States.
The time at “Kodi,” the boarding school she attended in India, had a lasting impact on Norma. Perhaps it was being in her early teens, that pivotal identity-establishing period, but I never heard her wax nostalgic about any other place from childhood. She loved Indian food and with the slightest coaxing would lapse into her Indian alter-ego, “Rani,” who spoke English with an affectionate parody of an Indian accent. (Think of the Dalai Lama’s distinctive lilt, or J. Z. Knight’s channeled entity “Ramtha” on steroids.)
In 1984 Norma McCaig went to a reunion of Kodaikanal International School. Initially wary, she found herself struck by an incredible sense of homecoming, far beyond what nostalgia might warrant. Not satisfied with the colloquial connotations of “third culture kids,” she wanted something more inclusive, something that would describe how wide this experience truly was—a phrase that alluded to our continuing journey as well as our upbringing. Thus was born “global nomads.” When Norma gave her first presentation on the subject a few months later, David Pollock was in the audience.
In 1987 McCaig attended the Second International Conference on Missionary Kids in Quito, Ecuador, where she met Ruth Van Reken. Norma stayed up all night reading Letters Never Sent and, like me, wept throughout. Ruth remembers vividly how she and Norma stayed up until the wee hours the following night discussing the commonalities between her upbringing as a missionary kid and that of Norma who grew up in the international business community. Along with those from volunteer agencies, foreign service, and military backgrounds, it is where these experiences overlap—and what we carry into adulthood—that offers the most insight. Norma McCaig was the first to see this so clearly.
McCaig borrowed heavily from her own retirement accounts to pull it off, but in December 1988 representatives from all these communities came together in Washington for the first conference of Global Nomads International. Norma never married or had children of her own; while this was not necessarily her preference, it did give her the freedom to pursue her vision. McCaig’s decades-long association with Meridian International Center made for an easy transition to more and more consulting work, lecturing at the Foreign Service Institute and writing articles for its Journal, leading cross-cultural workshops for the Foreign Service Youth Foundation, for Berlitz Language Centers, and at conferences sponsored by SIETAR (Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research) and NAFSA: Association of International Educators.
McCaig went through Georgetown University’s Training Specialist Program and used those skills to work with educators, counselors, and mental health professionals to increase their awareness and ability to better serve the globally mobile population. In 1990 she persuaded George Mason University (located in Northern Virginia, just outside Washington) to provide her with office space, even though she had no official position there. Along with David Pollock, Norma was among the first researchers and advocates to emphasize the importance of re-entry—and having an organized structure to support TCKs coming “home” for college.
At George Mason she started the first collegiate global nomads club, soon followed by one at American University and George Washington University (both in Washington) and at Duke University in North Carolina. Meanwhile, global nomad discussion groups had sprung up in Boston, New York, Atlanta, San Diego, and Seattle. In 1993 a Danish global nomad, inspired by a talk on the subject her Argentine fiancé had heard in France, started the first European group—in Geneva, Switzerland.
Norma McCaig’s life was about making connections—between individuals, groups, and ideas. She could muster an impressive turnout for a meeting, a project, or a social event better than anyone I’ve known. Global Nomads International (GNI) never became the institution McCaig worked so hard to establish, with formal chapters across the country and around the world; but her vision of a vibrant, interactive global nomad community has certainly become a reality—in no small part because of her early efforts.[i] Norma’s slogan for GNI was “Affirmation, Exploration, Action.” For those of us in leadership roles, our mandate was “to create an environment for global nomads to affirm their experience, explore it, and discover ways to use it.” We were to be “catalysts for the healthy integration of this special experience into the lives of global nomads, but also for effecting positive change—locally, nationally and globally.”[ii]
When Norma learned she had bone cancer in 2004, at first it only slowed her down a little. Her professional and personal lives had always overlapped, and in recent years she worked more and more out of her home in Reston, Virginia. Norma was known for her annual pumpkin-carving parties in the fall, and her summer birthday (July 25) was a major affair—bringing together people from many different walks of life. Norma was the networking queen, constantly putting friends and associates in touch with someone else who shared the same background or concerns. And this gift for connecting with people is perhaps our greatest loss with her passing.
Norma McCaig died in November 2008, after an unexpected relapse of the cancer she had successfully fought three years earlier. To me, it felt like the end of an era. In a few short years the global nomads community lost three of its guiding lights. (Ruth Useem died in 2003, David Pollock in 2004.) When I shared with Ruth Van Reken the huge loss I felt at Norma’s passing, she told me to think of the thousands of lives Norma has touched, just as Ruth had reminded herself when David Pollock died. (She and Pollock had worked closely on TCK issues for more than fifteen years.) Those many lives, Ruth said, are like seeds floating through the air, dispersed around the world, now blooming with the same generosity of spirit; continuing the vision.[iii] In a tribute letter read at McCaig’s memorial service, Van Reken recalled her as “this tiny red-headed marvel who packed so much energy and joy and brilliance into her little frame. . . . Norma is an example for all of us of how one person with a vision, a dream, a heart, and courage can, in fact, change the world.”[iv]
There used to be a life-size self-portrait of McCaig hanging in the hallway of her home, just inside the front door. She created this painting in celebration and gratitude after her first bout with cancer in 2004. A typewritten note taped beside the picture offered this description—one that is also a remarkable summary of Norma’s character and the strength and grace of her spirit:
“From the darkness of facing the end of this life to the deep blue of spiritual intention and constant loving support of countless people to the vibrant green of growth that comes when moving beyond adversity to the sense of being enveloped in bright, healing, life-giving Light, I feel the joy expressed in the face of the woman, Norma, who meets you eye-to-eye.”
Always connecting from the heart; pursuing a vision of service, supported by her creativity and respect for the sacred—Norma was an Elder, a leader who used all her resources to benefit others. Because of Norma McCaig, many of us have found reconciliation with our past and a new perspective on our future. We have found fellowship, friendship, and a sense of family. Norma helped us discover and create a community we can call home. A place to stand. We can now more confidently face the world because we better understand who we are and where we came from.
More than anyone, Norma McCaig worked hardest to make us a culture, not just an identity or a researchable “population.” The various local seminars, workshops, dessert-and-discussion evenings in someone’s home, the annual winter holiday potluck, and the national conferences—all of them expressed that holy trinity of connection, meaning, and nourishment. Norma’s life, and how she taught us to embrace the whole of our experience as global nomads, brings to mind the attitude of the Lebanese American poet, Kahlil Gibran: “I would not exchange the laughter of my heart for the fortunes of the multitudes; nor would I be content with converting my tears, invited by my agonized self, into calm.”[v] Norma McCaig helped us embrace the rich mosaic of our lives—a mosaic created by both accident and intent, from all the broken-tea-cup moments of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.
[i] Whether coincidence or synchronicity, it’s interesting that a spate of memoirs and other books on TCKs came out in the 1990s, just a few years after the first Global Nomads International conference.
[ii] Global Nomads DC (August 1991), 4.
[iii] I’m reminded of the quip made about Lou Reed’s proto-punk group, the Velvet Underground: Only 700 people bought their first record, but all of them founded a band.
[iv] From letter read at McCaig’s memorial service in Reston, VA, November 16, 2008.
[v] Kahlil Gibran, Tears and Laughter (New York: Wisdom Library, 1949), 7.
Website: Paul Asbury Seaman and you can contact him at email@example.com