Between Spain and Spain

Last weekend, three of us went to the mountainous Spanish countryside to retreat from the normal grind of life. We drank in the green, the quiet, and space to read, write, and think. 

I knew I was still in Spain, but it looked so different from Mytown that I kept saying things like, “When I get back to Spain…” To me, Spain is noisy streets full of colorful immigrants, not silent citrus trees dotting an overgrown garden. To be in the Spanish countryside awoke longings in me that typically get silenced in the distractions of city life.

citrus trees surrounding overgrown garden

Months ago, a friend recommended the book Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging by Marilyn R. Gardner. There, straddling those separate Spanish worlds, I figured it was as good of a time as any to start reading. 

Gardner writes, “I’ve come to realize that longing is ok as long as it does not paralyze, as long as I slowly continue to embrace the life that has been given at this time, at this moment” (Airports, par. 19).

Back in Mytown, far away from the calming Spanish countryside and even farther from my Illinois family and friends, I sometimes long for what I don’t grasp between my fingers. But will I let that longing rob me of today? Or can the far away people, places, and experiences of my life shape me into who God has called me to be where He has called me to be, right here?

What about you? Will you let your past life experiences and unfulfilled longings shape your today for the good?

It’s a choice, I think. Perhaps mixed with some trial and error. But a choice to let longing live inside of you, enriching but not robbing you.

Belonging where I thought I’d never be

Today marks a year in Mytown. One whole year. I baked cookies for my landlord this morning and she gawked at me. “One year already?” I’ve always been here, I think. And yet with every past event, why is there that conflicting perception of time? My years in North Africa and Immigrantville have faded into black and white mental photographs unless I pause long enough to remember them. 

Today, I paused over some ISU memories.

When I heard about the study abroad program in Andalusia, Spain, I wasn’t interested. I was heading to the southern border, not overseas. I tilted my college projects, volunteer hours, and self study toward my goal. 

Within my program, there was a clear divide between those who had studied abroad and those who had not, the “in” and “out” groups (as much as students are “in” and “out” at state universities). Those who had studied abroad re-lived their together memories and savored their “thaythayo” (what to the rest of us just sounded like a bad lisp).

Latin America was my first love and always will be. First loves don’t change. But they lose a bit of their potency when you fall in love again. And I have. This time, ironically, with Andalusia.

How did that even happen?

The other night, I met a Peruvian lady in the park. I delighted in her gentle Spanish and warm, generous culture. A year ago, that interaction would have stirred in me a longing for where I was not. But now?

I could spiritualize this. I could say that God has tuned my heart to contentment, even if my life isn’t what I had pictured. But that isn’t true, at least not the whole truth and nothing but the truth. 

My acceptance of where I am right now is more about familiarity, belonging.

Years ago, I found my place in Latino culture. I never planned to rupture that sense of familiarity, safety, and home. But then I moved to Andalusia where the blend of cultures in this huge immigrant community reinforced my outsider complex; it showed me my “un”– how un-Andalusian and how un-North African I was. How “un” everyone else around me.

But time marched on, as it usually does. I began to taste the many flavors of my community and realized that I simultaneously do and don’t fit in on account of my being different, just like everyone else. 

The blend of us–Spaniards, North Africans, Sub-Saharan Africans, Pakistanis, Russians, Romanians, South Americans, Chinese (to name the most prominent)–can be overwhelming sometimes, but each culture adds a subtle note that the community would miss were it not there.

On Sunday, three of us neighbors stood in a neighbor’s kitchen, chatting about our far away families. I belonged just as much as they did. And this belonging is my new familiarity.

No, my life is not what I had expected, but I can say that it is essentially what I had hoped for.

So today marks one year in Mytown and more than four years in Andalusia. I cradle this fragile bit of geographical belonging in my hands and am grateful. God has given me this earthly gift not to distract me from Him, but to direct me to His heart where I find belonging that will “belong” me no matter where I am in the world.

Not where I belong

Well, it’s time again, ready or not. That’s what I’ve been telling myself for the last couple of weeks. I’ve been pulled apart by the highs and lows of leaving until sometimes, I don’t feel anything at all, as if the slug of conflicting emotions deposits a slimy trail of numbness. That sounds depressing, but with two days left, I suspect I’m more on the melancholy side of things. The excitement will return when my feet are planted on Spanish soil. (I say “when” and not “if” to boost my confidence that the trip will go as planned. 🙂 )

I’m excited to return to Spain, to find a new normal that doesn’t feel like an in-between normal. But I want to weep when I think of leaving behind my beloved in-between.

Belonging to two places tastes more like not fully belonging anywhere. That, my friends, tastes bittersweet. Sweet, only because it’s a sturdy reminder that:

All I know is I'm not home yet
This is not where I belong.
Take this world and give me Jesus
This is not where I belong.
(Building 429 from "Where I Belong")

Photo by John McArthur on Unsplash

An Illinois New Year

I could rave about my wonderful time in the States. I could post oodles of pictures that prove I have the cutest nieces and nephews in the world. (And I do, by the way. Don’t try to argue.)

It was wonderful: a belated Christmas celebration, lots of food, church and friend fellowship, a helicopter ride, little people love, morning talks at the breakfast table, evening talks snuggled in fat couches, warmth, dryers, carpet, etc.

But the truth is, it’s also good to be back in Spain. It has taken a full week of not-so-good days to be able to say that. 

I watched my friend frying donuts by the dying daylight. The banished cat made a puff of white against the patio door with each complaint. We ignored him. The air was heavy with the spitting oil when my friend asked about my trip to America. 

“Wonderful” didn’t suffice. Both the warm fuzzies and tears were part of the wonderfulness.

So I told her and she listened.

In that sacred moment, my two worlds married, reminding me that who I am in America is who I am in Spain too. 

Permanence

Barf bag? Check. Peppermint oil? Check. Ginger? Check. I wasn’t going to jeopardize the rest of the trip by getting sick on the first of my three flights.

Now for the distraction. I plugged in earbuds and cranked up Handel’s Messiah.

The plane taxied. The engines roared. And we were up, up, and away. “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!” boomed the bass soloist.

Forty-five minutes later, the wheels touched the runway. “Glory to God! Glory to God! Glory to God in the hiiiiiigh-eeeest!” the choir shrieked.

Amen. Flight #1 was done. But flight #2 was the doozy: Chicago to Madrid. I glazed over after hours of my seatmate’s flickering screen through my closed eyelids. When flight #3 came around, I couldn’t keep my eyes open during the safety demonstration but drifted to sleep on my seatmate’s arm.

Traveling to my new home took less than 24 hours, but it’s going to take me longer than that to adjust. As I walk the familiar streets, I’m continually surprised when I realize that I’m a Spanish resident, not just a visitor.

For years, I have been longing for a sense of permanence. Now I have it and I’m not quite sure what to do with it. Not yet.

But Someone in my life understands permanence better than I do. In fact, He has never changed. And He is the best part of the permanence in my life right now. “The eternal God is your refuge and underneath are the everlasting arms.” (Deut. 33:27a)

Casting all your anxieties on him

When she told me goodbye, my roommate gave me a stack of envelopes- one per month until my birthday. There were two photos in the May envelope. One was a peaceful mountain landscape… with an ominous quote:

“You will never be completely at home again. Because part of your heart will always be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.”

The other photo was of an overloaded North African donkey. On the back of the photo, my roommate had written “Casting ALL your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. (1 Peter 5:7)”

I immediately posted both on my refrigerator. They belonged together.

My life is strange right now- the sensation of not quite belonging anywhere. The struggle of trying to remember exactly where you are and why you are there. Sometimes the struggle even includes trying to remember who you are. Re-entry is somewhat like waking up from a vivid dream. Initially, there is such a lostness.

But He is capable and willing to carry my anxieties. And more than that, He cares for me.

The quiet road

It’s been a quiet road. Not a lot of mountains, valleys, or even speed bumps. But sometimes the quiet is the hardest part of the journey. I feel alone sometimes. Well, a lot of times. The world at home continues without me… like it should and like I knew it would. But it hurts when I can’t be a part of it.

This week at the international church, the speaker brought a very real struggle into the open: it doesn’t seem fair that we have to be the ones leaving behind what we know.

But His call is personal. He instructs Peter to “Feed my sheep” and “Follow me” (John 21). When Peter questions him about another disciple, He pulls Peter’s focus back to the personal calling: “What is that to you? You follow me!”

See, it’s not a matter of what we have or what we leave behind; it’s a matter of following.

So, although the quiet road is lonely, I don’t have to feel something supernatural and emotional to be able to claim God’s promise that He is with me.

Ode to Marriage

The rain is banging against the tarp, filling the concrete house with a dull roar. Just the sound of it causes my bones to shiver. I promised myself a cup of coffee as long as I diligently planned the week’s English lessons. Then I opened a blank document and forgot my promise.

There is something about having a sheet of white on my screen that makes my fingers want fill it up with random thoughts. This time my random thoughts are about marriage.

What do I know about marriage? Very little since I’ve been single for nearly 30 years. Yet, being in a culture that points to marriage as necessary for one’s spiritual journey makes me contemplate this more than I would were I still in the States.

In one perspective, life begins at marriage. The unspoken idea is that one cannot be happy unless they have a significant other.

Then there is the perspective that life ends at marriage. Think about how countless movies and books end with a couple finally realizing that they are right for each other. Why do the books and movies end there?

And then, even more real to me in this culture is the perspective that once a woman is married, she becomes her husband’s servant and is bound to her home. Her only joy after marriage is having children.

At times, I’m envious of married couples who step into this new world together and get to experience things as a unit rather as individuals.

To me, that’s one of the most beautiful things of marriage: companionship. I told my classmate my thoughts and she looked at her husband and smiled: “Yes, that’s true. But once you’re married, you don’t DO as much!”

I suppose there’s a flip-side to everything. That’s why I won’t stress out about my marital status. The preparation for anything is in seeking God’s face.

These are my disconnected, rainy day thoughts.