We call them the kissing trees. Today they are featured in the middle of the open yard, the only two hardwoods still reaching for the sky after the whole acre has been cleared. They weren’t always so noticeable. Their bases used to be surrounded by brambles and weeds, their tops crowded out by less hardy but more demanding pines.
It’s why they lean so—they had to curve around the stingy evergreens to find the sun. They aren’t perfect; in fact, they’re quite awkward. There are dead limbs hanging off of one that need to be trimmed. Their growth is uneven. But we couldn’t let them go when we cut the rest down to make way for pasture. They’d fought so hard for their place here...like we did—Sadie and me.
Sadie bought this land and well-worn house before she turned 18, the promise of a bright future, even if it was going to take a little work. We were young, optimistic best friends with barely any life behind us and we thought we knew something of the world. We were wrong. But Sadie was right about buying this house. It has gone through as many changes as our lives have. It’s constantly under renovation, an ever-present reminder of how our lives are renovations, too. The other thing we she was right about is that we’d be friends forever.
Over two decades later we’ve weathered our shares of brambles, weeds, demanding circumstances, and uneven places of growth. Individually and as friends. We met at only 14. It was a decade later when I moved into the basement apartment of her house, thinking it would be for a short time. All in all, over the course of three times of moving out and back in, I've spent eight of the last sixteen years living on the same property as my best friend, watching our lives bend toward each others in irrevocable ways.
Our families have grown and changed and we’ve both left this house and returned to it. It’s seen our two families collectively through a divorce, death of loved ones, chronic illness, loss of jobs, recovering relationships with long-lost parents, losing relationships with long-loved friends, and so much more. It’s been witness to movie nights and bonfires, egg hunts and prime rib dinners, and more laughter than these walls can contain.
This week Sadie took scrap wood from under the shed and cut it down into boards for a new farmhouse dining table. She brushed away mold and rot, a spider web or two. They were tossed there a year ago when we pried them up to pour concrete for a porch. For over ten years they had supported the weight of those who came and went from the basement apartment.
When we brought our firstborn home from the hospital, we only had a gravel drive and dirt entrance outside the lower level of the house where Lee and I lived. We spent a lot of time out there though as Sadie’s back porch steps met our front entrance.
Lee spent the first week of Nadia’s life building that porch where we later hung her first swing. That yard is where we sat late into the night with Sadie and Ben watching the fire die, where the kids played and we laughed at the five dogs between us chasing each other. It is where we shared cups of coffee every morning when we were each other’s only “bubble” members as we weathered the lonely Covid pandemic. It was the center of our collective lives.
That cast aside wood is becoming the top boards of the table we will take with us when we move this week into our new home less than ten minutes away. Ten minutes between our two families, instead of just a staircase and a yard. That life we built here is changing again, as all good things must do. We know it is for the best. It is the space we need to allow our families to grow and become what they should be. But every new season carries with it a grief we can’t always name. Every new season comes with the death of the season before it.
New seasons begin and the landscape changes, but some things will always remain: the strongest trees that learn to bend toward life when the odds are against them; houses with good bones that hold generations of stories within their walls; the ties that bind friends into a kind of family that cannot be broken.
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