Settled: Chronic Homesickness and Moving Back After Two Years Abroad

It’s been three weeks since we arrived in America and it feels more like 3 months because of all we’ve crammed into those 21 days.

“Are you all settled in?” people ask.

Am I settled? I’ve unpacked. I’ve decorated. I’ve figured out where the bank is and the grocery store and the closest Chinese takeout place. Is that settled?

“You must be so glad to be home!” they say.

Glad. Yes, I suppose I am. I was glad to see my family and my in-laws. Glad to reconnect with old friends. Glad to have a car and the ability to drive where I want whenever I want to. I’m glad to have more space and glad for an apartment with central air conditioning. I’m glad to be surrounded with our old things and glad to have our cats back in our home. Glad to start making new friends and building a new community. But glad to be Home? I don’t even know what that means.

I crave Home like water. Like air. Sometimes I think I catch a glimpse of it out of the corner of my eye, but when I turn my head it fades like smoke in the night, leaving only a shadowy outline where it may have been. I’m unsure of its shape, much less its substance.

In Korea I was homesick for my family and for America. In America, I’m homesick for my family and for Korea. I’m comfortable here, and yet, I’m homesick. And who says I can’t be both?

I miss the river and the mountains and the park by our house. I miss life in a city and the energy of downtown and the ease of the subway and how completely safe I always felt in spite of all the people. I miss my friends and I miss the luxury of two full-time incomes and how little we had to worry about paying for groceries or going out to dinner. It takes my breath away, how much I miss it. While in Korea I thought of America as Home and yet I’m realizing that on a subconscious, maybe even visceral level, Korea is Home as well.

Last week I went to Publix, a local grocery chain I’d never been to before. I walked along the aisles of produce and marveled at the abundance, the novelty of such easy access to foods both familiar and foreign. I stopped in front of a cold case of artichokes, green beans, and asparagus. I picked up a bundle of asparagus, felt the weight of it in my hand – succulent green stalks with their knobby purplish heads that I can never look at without thinking of Junior the Asparagus from Veggie Tales. It wasn’t until the man stocking produce asked if I was OK that I realized I was crying.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m OK.” Embarrassed, I put the asparagus back and wandered down another aisle where I was assaulted by an overwhelming 10 varieties of Oreos. I left without buying anything.

Science tells us that adaptation is crucial to survival. We bend and change and mold ourselves into new shapes, learn to breathe the air and drink the water of a new environment. But I can only bend so far and sometimes I think I’ll never quite fit this mold again, although it once fit me like a glove. I feel stretched thin, spread across cities and continents, straddling an ever widening gap between the world I’ve loved for the past few years and the world I’m trying to love now.

I don’t know if Home is here or there or if I will ever stop feeling homesick for some other unnamable place, but I do know this: Who I am and Where I am are not the same thing, but they are connected. Who I am is a work-in-progress. Who I am has been shaped by Louisiana and Chicago and Raleigh and Korea, and now it’s being shaped by Columbia.

Maybe I’ll never truly feel settled, but I will always know where I’ve been and who I am because of those places. Here’s to the next stage of becoming.

Life in the In-Between

I’m living an in-between life.

The days grow longer and hotter, the mercury already rising near 90 some afternoons, and I remember what it is to live coated with a constant sheen of sweat. But even as I dread the oppressive heat and the thick cloak of humidity beginning to descend, I remember that the cool kiss of the air in the mornings and the smell of the jasmine in the park and the dozens little voices screaming, “Hello, Lily Teacher!” from across the school yard will only be memories sooner than I know.

I measure my days in lasts – last cherry blossom season, last hikes, last baseball games, last weekend trips, last nights hopping in cabs and speeding home through the city with its crazy drivers and its flashing neon signs. Last few months of stability before this life disappears and I’m trying to find my place all over again.

Soon we’ll have our last home church meeting as the family who hosts us returns to the US for the summer. And then we will have last meals with our friends as one-by-one we leave this place and return to our Before lives. But we are not our Before selves.

For months I’ve dreamed of home – of a place where no one stares at me while I try to run errands or pushes me out of the way on the bus. I’ve dreamed of my mother who hugs fiercely and breathes deeply every time she sees me, so she can remember the smell of me when I’m gone again. Of a grocery store full of foods whose names I know, where cheese doesn’t go on cookies and where a watermelon never costs $16. And I’ve dreamed of my friends, the ones whose lives I’ve missed little by little as we’ve each taken two years of steps in different directions. But the closer I get to home, the more I understand that this home doesn’t exist anymore. At least not in the way I remember it.

I see it most clearly when I talk to my friends in America. Sometimes it feels like I’m playing the role of Before self in our conversations, unsure if this New self still fits. And as each day brings us closer to our return I find myself clinging to this life we’ve built – to all the strange and difficult things that have become oddly familiar, and to the adventure of it all, something I’ve nearly forgotten in my months of homesickness.

“What if this is it?” I wail to my husband. “What if this is all the adventure we are ever going to get and I spent so many months ready to move on?”

He says adventure is only over when we choose to see it that way. He says adventure is a gift that comes in different shapes and sizes – we only miss it if we reject the gift entirely.

I try to pray about all of this. About being torn between home and this strange place that has crept its way into my heart and about the fear of no longer belonging. I try to pray and I find myself reading Mary Oliver instead. She writes at the end of “The Summer’s Day”.

“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”

And the words come to me like a grace.

You are already living your one wild and precious life, Love. Pay attention. Today may be all the adventures you will ever live. What are you going to do with it?

And I catch my breath. Because in the midst of all of it – the fear, the uncertainty, the longing for things that don’t exist anymore, the warring desires to stand still and to run forward–isn’t this still the question that matters?

We are all living in the in-between, caught somewhere between who we’ve been and who we are becoming. But we are all also living in the very center of our one dazzling life. Pay attention. What is it you plan to do with that today?

There’s No Place Like Home-If Only You Can Find It

I am 3 years old and Home is a duplex I share with my mom and my brother. I love because it has an upstairs and a laundry chute that goes straight from the floor of the upstairs bathroom into the laundry room below. Before this there were other homes, but I only remember them in singular, faded images. A rocking horse. A brown basket full of books. But this home I remember in its entirety. My brother’s hamster Conan, and the witches I knew lived inside the air condition vent. This is my mom’s home, but not my dad’s, which is a little confusing for me. Sometimes my brother drops me down the laundry chute for fun.

I am 5 and Home is a long brick house with an eggplant-shaped pool in the back yard. I don’t like it as much as the duplex because there are no stairs, but I do love that pool. And I like that this home has more family in it. My mom and my brother, but also my pop and the new baby. My imaginary friend, Sammy the Squirrel, lives in the backyard and my maybe-boyfriend Christopher lives next door. This is the home we board ourselves up in for my first major hurricane. I’m confused because the hurricane is named Andrew, like one of my cousins, and I can’t figure out what they have to do with each other. One night at dinner, my spaghetti is too hot, so my pop takes it outside and runs around the pool with it to cool it off. Then it’s just right. I’m sitting on the tile floor in the kitchen eating my milk and cookies (because we aren’t allowed to eat on the carpet in the living room, but from here I can still see the TV) when my mom and pop tell us that we are going to have yet another baby. “I guess the new baby will be the old baby now,” I think, and they tell us that we will move to a bigger house before the new baby comes. I am devastated to leave my true love, Christopher, but am consoled when I consider that the new house might have a window seat.

I am 7 and the new house does not have a window seat or any stairs either, but it does have a two-story wooden playhouse in the backyard and a neighborhood full of kids my age. Now we are six: my mom and my dad (because I realized nobody else has a pop and I didn’t want one either), my brother and my two little sisters. I was confused by the arrival of the second sister. I’d been certain she would be a boy to even things out demographically. I even pre-filled out the book my parents gave me about being a big sister with these details. “I have a baby brother. His  name is Gus.” I wasn’t so sure about another girl, but she grew on me. Home is the place for dress-up and fairy tales. The place where I live out a hundred storylines in my imagination and read books out loud with my dad before bed each night. It’s the place where I start growing up – where I have my first sleepovers and learn how to shave my legs and wear a training bra.

I am 11 and Home is shifting again. We are moving to a new place with lots of land. A place where we can breathe, my mom says. There’s a spiral staircase in the living room that leads to the second floor. When we first move in, my brother lives upstairs, but after a few years he moves out and the tower is mine. I spend many hours reading in my tower room, listening to the sound of rain on the tin roof, wondering what it’s like to fall in love. I am Home when 9/11 happens and we watch the towers fall over and over again on the TV in the living room. Home is the place where I chronicle my first serious crush and where I cry when my brother is deployed to Iraq.    In those volatile teenage years, Home is a place full of internal turmoil – a refuge from the daily torture of high school, but also a place where I feel I can’t do anything quite right. Where I fear I’m always in the way. In those years it is a place where I haven’t quite grown into myself. Where I am a child, but I no longer want to be.

I am 18 and my concept of Home has been ripped in two. Home is Louisiana. It’s a white house with a tin roof and oak trees all around. But it’s also a dorm room in a little town in Illinois. It’s the girls that I live with who are helping me become me. It’s a triple set of bunk beds I always have to be on the bottom of because I’m afraid of falling off. It’s the commuter train to Chicago and the little parks dotting neighborhoods full of dear old houses full of stories. It’s the college itself, alive with new ideas that challenge me and with laughter and with love. And lately it’s also becoming a red-headed boy from Indiana.

I am 22 and in the space of a few sacred moments at an altar what was Home is now “my parent’s house” and my Home is wherever this red-headed man is. But, of course, it isn’t quite as clean a break as that. It takes a while to break the habit. To stop thinking of my childhood house as Home. Our first apartment together in Illinois is small and sweet. In the winter the bedroom window leaks so badly we sleep in layers of sweatshirts covered by a pile of blankets so thick, the weight of them makes it hard to breathe. It’s here that our family grows to include two cats – animals I’d always believed I hated until those two darlings stole my heart and changed my mind. For a year we live here and we learn so much about love. But Illinois never feels like it could be a forever home to me. And after a year we know it is time to move on.

I am 24 and Home is Raleigh, North Carolina. For the first time I feel my heart is tied to a place itself instead of just the people who live there. My heart belongs to North Carolina. Its lush green hills, the trees everywhere, the lakes and the creeks and the impossibly glorious fall. The bluegrass music and the hipsters with their micro-breweries and the sweet clean air in my lungs. This is Home. This is where I learn to run. Mile after mile along the winding greenways. This is Home  – the place where I both land and quit my first real job. The place where I learn to take control – where I become strong and healthy and focused.  The place where so many people I love are close enough to visit and where my best friend lives just around the corner. This is Home. This is where I want to grow old. But I’m not ready to grow old just yet.

I am 26 and Home is a fragmented thing. Sometimes Home means an apartment in South Korea, covered in bright floral wallpapers and growing mold in spite of aggressive attempts to keep it at bay.  This Home is full of love and adventure and a willingness to try new things, to change and to grow. But in many ways it doesn’t feel like Home at all.  Home is also America. All of it. The sights and smells and tastes and people that mean comfort and joy and love and belonging. Home is each other, just the two of us, wherever we may be. But home is also the family, the friends, and the pets we’ve left behind. The places we have lived and loved. The places that have shaped us.

Sometimes Home is a dorm-room, an apartment, a house, a city, a state, an entire country. Home seems to be an ever-changing creature. But always it is a feeling. It is the place where love is given and received. It is the place where you are free to be and to become yourself.  It is the place where you are known.