I was in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in March 2020 when the country first began to experience pandemic-related closures. Instead of spending two weeks speaking in international schools and counselling centres and then celebrating my best friend’s 40th birthday with her, I spent a week alone in my hotel room, carefully checking the latest news in China — especially Beijing, where I had left my husband. Then the Australian government told citizens abroad to come home NOW if they didn’t have a secure place to stay. Thus began three years of limbo living.
This week brought the three-year anniversary since I left for that ill-fated business trip that wasn’t. The end of in-person speaking engagements and workshops. The end of travelling abroad for work and play. The end of living in the same country as my husband.
When that anniversary came, I was in Chiang Mai, Thailand – that’s where I sit writing this to you now.
I spent over two weeks in Phnom Penh before arriving here. I have been conducting my first in-person workshops in three years, and it is good to be back! In the past three weeks I have spoken to large groups of educators, staff, parents, and students in two international schools in two countries. I have run numerous coaching sessions with parents and family sessions with parents and children together. I have spoken to counsellors (in an international school and at an independent centre), missionaries, missionaries-in-training, and more. I have made many connections with people excited to know I’ll be back in October of this year.
And in a few days, I’ll fly down to Bangkok to attend a conference there – echoing my first stop on that trip three years ago, travelling on non-refundable tickets initially purchased for a conference cancelled due to the pandemic. I am doing now all the things I was not able to do then.
What a full-circle moment this whole month has been!
Those three years in between were not wasted years. The woman who stood in front of hundreds of people over the past three weeks did so with greater empathy, compassion, and emotional depth than the woman three years ago possessed. I have aged in many ways – and I don’t just mean the widening streaks of white above my ears!
When I talk about Unpacking Pandemic Experiences or work with a family processing their experience of being locked out of China, I do so as one who has been there in the trenches alongside them – and who is, in many ways, still there.
This has been a month of full-circle moments, of returning to do the things I couldn’t then. It has also been a time of seeing myself step into things I could not have done then. I have grown through this difficult season – and the people I serve see it.
Sometimes in life we look for opportunities to go back – to return to what was, to redeem lost time, to get opportunities back. As I reflect on the past few weeks, I have the joy of lost opportunities met at last – and with it, the realisation that moving forward is the greater joy.
I went out for Chinese noodles with two families I went to church with in Beijing. All 12 of us around the table were locked out of China due to the pandemic, unable to return to the country we called home – and our apartments full of belongings – due to circumstances out of our control. There was joy in reminiscing, but there was more joy in catching up and seeing where we’ve all landed and the new lives we’re building.
I delighted in meeting up with old friends in Phnom Penh, people I have known for many years. But I also delighted in meeting and making new friends both there and in Chiang Mai — some of whom I hope I will continue to meet with in the years to come, creating new old friends.
There can be power in nostalgia, in remembering the ways we have been loved and supported in the past. It can fuel us, reminding us that good friends can be had and that they are worth investing in now.
Full-circle moments are beautiful – not because of what was, but because they show us what is.