A couple of months ago I had an exchange on facebook with a friend of mine from university days.
Sal and her husband have been living in the Middle East for the past three years. They moved there with their three young children so that they could immerse themselves deeply in the context and culture, learn to speak Arabic, and then return to Australia and work more effectively with refugees and other immigrants from the Middle East.
Last month, Sal put the following status up on her facebook profile:
It’s 2 months today until we fly from our home here in the Middle East to our home in Australia. As they say, I am feeling all the feels. I can hardly believe it’s been 3 years (almost).
Like the Grinch, my heart has grown three sizes (or more) since being here. The warmth and depth of hospitality and friendship – often in the midst of incredible hardships – I will cherish always.
This is SUCH an up and down time. What an amazing journey you guys have been on. Thinking of you during this time of packing up and saying goodbye and tearing loose and replanting.
Then Sal asked me a question.
Do you find that the closer it gets to leaving, the more you want to stay? I have been looking at new apartments going up near the kids school and thought “It would be nice to live there.”
It was so interesting to see this from Sal. I know this last three years of mothering 3 little ones, building relationships, and learning a new language in a culture and context vastly different from her own have not been easy. And although I don’t know all the ins and outs of their story, I would guess that she has, at times, found herself counting down the days until their return to Australia.
But her question also makes total sense to me.
“Oh, yes. Yes. Totally,” I wrote. “There are so many reasons why this can be.”
I dashed off a jumbled paragraph to Sal about this that day (as we tend to do on facebook), but I found myself thinking about her question long after I’d pressed ENTER.
Since it’s been on my mind (and since I’m pretty sure Sal and I are not the only ones who have inhabited this tension) I want to expand on my answer here today.
Oh, yes. Yes. Totally.
There are so many reasons why this can be.
First, you are finally settled to a large extent. You know how to navigate the environment–how to get places, and where and what to buy at the markets. You can speak the language and actually have a conversation that extends beyond greetings, the weather, and if your baby slept well the night before. You know what to expect from your transplanted life.
And your life there is vibrant and alive and full of details that now feel both normal and yet still, somehow, novel. That daily duality of normal/novel that you are living continues to stretch your perspective and your heart and your emotions. You feel like a different person than you were when you left Australia, and you are. You have stretched in so many ways to grow into an entirely new reality.
But so many things about the future remain unknown. You might be going back to the same city you left, but you are returning a different person. You will likely be living in a different place, doing different things. And those new people and jobs and opportunities are likely impossible to visualize in detail. They are aspirations and possibilities that can pale in comparison to the vivid realities of daily life in your adopted home.
Right now you are simultaneously mourning all the wonderful things you are leaving, without being able to fully grasp all the wonderful things you are going to.
You know that the wonderful things you are leaving when you get on that plane “home,” you’re likely leaving forever. You might come back, but it will never be the same.
And then there are the people. You have cooked and laughed and cried and journeyed with so many people during the last three years. You have heard stories and witnessed realities that have taught you, humbled you, buoyed you, and broken your heart. You have felt privileged, helpless, guilty, grateful, and everything in between.
And you are leaving these people behind to face an uncertain future. You are leaving, when so many of those who will stay behind in your adopted home right now long for their chance to leave.
So it makes perfect sense to me that—on the precipice of leaving—you find yourself longing to stay, celebrating all that is and has been good about your adopted home.
This is a time for both grief and hope, mourning and excitement. And if right now there seems to be more grief than hope—more grief than you would ever have expected to feel during those long, hot early days there—remember that you are letting go of things and people you have come to love and respect.
And remember that all the things you have come to love about the Middle East and all that it has taught you will help align you with others who have loved and lost their homes there, too.
That is why you went in the first place. That is why you are now stepping out in faith again into a new reality and going “home.” To your “other” home.
Oh, Sal. Wishing you and your precious ones safe travels and many fresh joys in the weeks ahead. I’m looking forward to seeing you in this next chapter.
Have you ever experienced this tension?
Please leave a comment and share your experiences.
And, if you’d like to learn more about Sal’s journey in the Middle East, take a look at one of her passion projects during her time there: tea and thread: portraits of Arab women far from home.