Our eyes grew wide in disbelief at the yelling, shoving crowd. We had been warned, to be fair, that our trip to the Mogamma, the towering government building in Tahrir Square, would be difficult. But this was something entirely otherworldly. We clutched our passports to our chests and braced ourselves against elbows to the ribs. Everyone there needed to get to that one plexiglass window at the front of the room. On the other side were the stamps that would allow us to stay in the country.
We came to Egypt on tourist one-month entry visas in faith that the system would work and we would be allowed to stay. We didn’t act like there was any other option when we signed a two-year lease and enrolled in Arabic classes. But we needed someone on the other side of the mob to take our papers and give us final permission.
We tell our immigration stories fondly now from the other side. They felt like harrowing experiences while we were in the middle of them though. We hounded the guy at the Bangladeshi Embassy daily. He could have denied our visas because of a changing rule we didn’t know about. Instead, he gave us a call and a chance to make it right. Our entire life was already packed up in ten suitcases and the one-way plane tickets had been purchased. Yet he held the power to deny us entry into the new life we sought. In the end, we got the highly-coveted five-year permission that others told us they were jealous of. “How easy it was for you,” they would say.
I’ve been an immigrant twice and I’ve served with an organization that worked in relief and development amidst one of the largest refugee crises of our time. I’ve helped bring aid to those who fled. I listened to and wrote stories so that donors would hopefully continue to help. I stood looking over the vast rolling hills of the world’s largest refugee camp and thought I knew something about the vulnerability of a transitory life. I knew nothing.
When I started listening, really listening—I realized how one-sided my knowledge was of why people leave and why people need sanctuary...
When we settled back in the U.S. last year after our living in South Asia, it felt like the world had moved on without us while we occupied another plane of existence altogether. We might as well have been returning from outer space. My family got used to living in partially packed houses or out of suitcases in someone’s guest room. We spent the last four years of our lives in one form or another of visible transition. out of suitcases in someone’s guest room. We spent the last four years of our lives in one form or another of visible transition.
When we stopped long enough to deal with how all the change had given us many gifts but also many scars, we opened our eyes to those in transition all around us. Ours was obvious because it included suitcases and tearful goodbyes.
But what about the friend who went back to work after years of staying home with the kids? There was the recently retired family member and a friend coming to grips with the limits her chronic illness gave her. We saw parents struggling with children’s learning difficulties or developmental stages, young adults stuck between college and “real life,” marriages falling apart and new families blending, moving between foster homes, adoption, leaving home, and returning to faith after years of anger with God. And these were just the people in our immediate circles!
I snatched up a copy of Gina Butz’s book Making Peace with Change: Navigating Life’s Messy Transitions with Honesty and Grace because I knew I needed it. It was obvious I was in the definition of a messy transition every time someone asked me how I was doing and tears started running down my cheeks. Having read some of Butz’s work before, I knew she also had lived overseas.
Making Peace with Change takes us through the often hidden parts of transition: hard, loss, desire, expectations, and grief...
At night these mostly bare walls with fresh paint echo more than they used to, bouncing each memory of the past six years back through my unquiet mind. The crickets and tree frogs sing a melody that is as commonplace to me here as the call to prayer and honking cars was when we lived in the Middle East. I haven’t stopped to notice it in a long time but in these still moments it is blaring in my ears, reminding me of all we are leaving behind.
A long-held dream is possibly just weeks away (the nature of overseas moves is always a little uncertain as we wait on visas and funding and a house to sell). I keep myself busy every waking hour but not just because my list of tasks to accomplish is long. If I sit in the quiet too long, the conflict inside begins to rage.
I see it in my daughter too, her sweet eyes filling up with tears when she asks for another doll accessory and I remind her we have to be selective in what we buy as we’ll only have so much room in the two suitcases each that will carry all our belongings with us to South Asia. We’re giving up a lot of things, sure. But what about the experiences, the people, the opportunities that we are leaving behind? I know the truth—that we will gain as much as we lose. My heart doesn’t always believe it though.
For sixteen years now this dream of living overseas has tumbled around inside of me. Fueled by five international trips in the past three years, fed by the stories we’ve heard from our refugee friends nearby, the dream has only grown. My husband had the seeds planted in his life early too when his parents hosted international workers in their home. The stories of faraway lands seemed otherworldly to an eight-year-old boy but the fire was ignited just the same. We’ve been working towards this for years.
Last month every event seemed to be a last one. We didn’t make a big deal of it to the kids, didn’t want each day to be colored by, “oh, this is your last dance recital and tomorrow is your last Independence Day parade and next week is your last time to that friend’s house!” After a beautiful week with our best friends at the beach house where we have vacationed every summer for eleven years now, we made the long walk to our cars. It’s always hard to say goodbye to them because we live states apart anyway.
The pain didn’t grip me though until the moment I wrapped my arms around my friend to say goodbye. We knew each other when we were just foolish college kids. Life hasn’t turned out like we thought it would. In most ways it is so much better than we imagined though some realities are harder than we dreamed. I kissed her two precious girls goodbye, feeling like I was placing my own children in their car seats. I lingered a moment to whisper “I love you” to the little boy growing in her belly knowing I won’t get to hold him when he’s still tiny. He will be born a month after we leave. The ache claws at the back of my throat and I can’t look at her with the tears burning my eyes, so I quickly turn away...
The miniature plastic house hung limply between two pine branches, the words “Our First Home” engraved on the side. We had brought the Christmas ornament with us to the first home we rented after a year and a half of marriage in which we lived with a friend.
The tree looked like it came straight out of Charlie Brown’s Christmas and the only other signs of celebration in our fourth-floor flat was a bright red poinsettia. Nothing about the day felt like Christmas because even though the Coptic minority celebrated the holiday, the Orthodox Christmas occurred later in January.
After we opened a couple gifts to each other—an onyx encrusted hand drum purchased from the tourist market and a grey flowing robe that local men wore called a gallabaya—we caught a cab to a nearby café that felt a bit like home.
The ancient culture had called to us back when we were living in the Southern United States. We imagined living in the land of the Pharaohs as this thrilling adventure and weren’t disappointed as the melodic Arabic call to prayer became the first soundtrack of our new lives.
In country for three months, the newness had worn off. We learned to say “we aren’t tourists; we live here” in Arabic to street vendors who tried to charge us more than we knew items were worth. But the truth is the dusty landscape didn’t feel much like home yet. We huddled in the cafe, isolated from those around us as we sipped our lattes and nibbled tomato and mozzarella sandwiches that Christmas afternoon, longing for the comfort of something familiar...
The Home series is a reflection on Jen's newly released Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home (IVP, May 2017).
Home is something that is on my mind daily in this season of my life, something that holds deep meaning and intense longing. As we pack up our home of six years, as we look towards a new home overseas, as we say good bye to those things that anchor us to what home has meant for most of our lives ... we are constantly reminded that God gave us a longing for place and how to find home in this world and long for it in the next.
Jen Pollock Michel's new book Keeping Place couldn't have been more timely for me and I believe it will be for you as well.
"Home is our most fundamental longing. And for many of us homesickness is a nagging place of grief. This book connects that desire and disappointment with the story of the Bible, helping us to see that there is a homemaking God with wide arms of welcome – and a church commissioned with this same work..."
- Jen Pollock Michel
The concrete floor and exposed pipe ceiling are, at the same time, a welcome sight and a dagger of grief and sadness through my heart, one that is deep in transition. It’s just a Starbucks, you might say. No, it’s a symbol of all that I am grieving and losing in my life right now.
I’ve been waiting for nine years (or 25 years, depending on how far back you want to go into my story) for this coffee shop to open. As I walk in its doors, the familiar sounds of hissing espresso machines and whiney folk music mingling in my ears, my heart is heavy.
For years I have said we needed a coffee shop here. My family moved to what was once a sleepy Georgia town when I was only ten, from just one county over. I’ve hated this place and cried when I left it, too. I’ve moved to other towns and even countries, but Georgia has always been on my mind, the sweet scent of confederate jasmine and gardenia following me wherever I have gone.
Not much but pine and red clay marked this strip of roadside when we moved here. The big intersection in town consisted of a corner family gas station and a single grocery store. Ours was one of the first houses built in the new subdivision going up just a couple minutes from that red light. We could have been the first settlers in the Wild West for how it felt to a skinny freckled little girl moving into this unknown and barren land.
Over the years we watched our little intersection change as the growth of Atlanta pushed into our south metro town. Concrete replaced the undergrowth as the road widened and big stores pushed that little family one out into the distant memory of the few of us who lived here “back then”. The field that held the annual haunted hayride that every person I knew attended is now covered over with stores and medical offices.
You will still always run into someone you know at any of the multitude of grocery and drug stores that dot the intersection these days, reminding me that we were once a small town. But nothing looks the same and every inch of land that isn’t built on yet is under construction. I’ve returned back to this place again and again—after college and then grad school, finally 9 years ago after living in the Middle East. This is where I grew from child to woman and where my own family started. It has been the only home my two kids have ever known. They’ve watched it change like I did. But now we’re the ones who are changing. Everything is changing.
I’ve loved coffee shops since before I drank the sweet nectar I cannot live without now. The introverted people person that I am, I can be alone in a crowd here. I can be surrounded by conversation and relationships happening around me but still be alone with my thoughts. I do my best thinking and writing in these staples of hip culture, these meccas for caffeine lovers.
Every Saturday morning I venture to the nearest Starbucks to have my “office hours” in which I do my writing and editing. I am usually the first one in the parking lot and don’t leave until the sun is up and my joints are aching from hours of being lost in thought and staring at a screen. I think I literally screamed out loud while I was driving past the new construction that is common on my way home from work. They had put up a Starbucks sign just minutes from my childhood home (that is only 3 miles from my current one).
Today as I sip my usual grande non-fat caramel macchiato I know I may only enjoy this long-awaited coffee shop a dozen times before I fly away from it for years. When I see it again, the shine will have worn off of the gleaming new espresso machines. Who knows how many stores will have closed down and new gone up? Will any of the tall Georgia pines still reach to the sky down this busy stretch of highway?
Just like this intersection, everything in my life is unfamiliar these days. I don’t recognize my own home anymore with most of our belongings packed and the new tile and paint that has readied it for selling. There is nothing routine about my schedule anymore as planning and packing crowd out enjoying the sunny spring days that are marked by the yellow pollen’s arrival on my front porch. We will move sometime this summer to a borrowed basement on the other side of town, right on the border between this county and the one of my birth. A few months after that, Highway 34 will be a just a recollection after our international move.
But it’s right now that I am living in the borderlands. Between wanting to go and longing to stay. Between roots and wings. Between a calling and a rootedness. Between everything I’ve always known and what is waiting out there to be learned.
It’s these places of push and pull that hurt the most. Transition is the feeling of not belonging anywhere. There’s pain in the knowledge of all we are leaving but joy in what I believe we will gain, too. There’s irony in the bittersweet knowledge that I’ve waited 25 years for a coffee shop to arrive in this part of town just to move away from it. There’s deep sorrow in the longing for my home while another home calls to me. This place is still firmly mine though I feel removed from it already.
In this borderland of goodbye I ache for the familiar but know if I let it get too familiar the separation will hurt too deeply. I know I shouldn't cling to Georgia as home more than anywhere else. I am trying to remember that nowhere in this world is ever truly going to be where I belong. "For this world is not our permanent home; we are looking forward to a home yet to come." (Hebrews 13.14, NLT)
You are home, Jesus. Anywhere in this world is a borderland between the now and the everlasting, between brokenness and wholeness. I ache for comfort you never promised me. Wherever I am, God, teach me how to live in this place that never changes—in the tension between holding on and letting go.
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