Once you belong, you always belong
To that stretch
Of a sky that is everywhere.
And while life ticks, you listen
To the wizened wind tell tales
Of toil in the black earth.
And scrawny green stalks
Become brown and yellow harvest
And dust brings a terrible sunset
To let you know that
Once you belong, you always belong.
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)
It came while I was meeting my niece 12½ hours away from home. There it was! My Spanish residence visa. Dad WhatsApped me a picture. I broadcasted the news near and far and even took the first steps to get my plane ticket.
The ecstasy lasted approximately one hour; because when I pulled out my pocket calendar, excitement vanished with a puff of reality. I was looking at today’s date and my departure date on the same page. I had between three and four weeks.
I should have been ready; all along I had known of this possibility. But now it was real. That night, instead of drifting off into agreeable dreams, I cried myself to sleep.
That was a week ago. Now I have less than three weeks left. I’m still tossed to and fro between the delight of moving to Spain and the sorrow of leaving behind my world.
- My nephews and niece will grow up, knowing me as the aunt who lives far away and brings them olives and cheap souvenirs with Spanish logos.
- My family will try to keep me in the loop, even as we age and grow apart.
- My church family will change dynamics as people come and people go.
- Friends will move away, marry, and have children.
- Older friends will have health complications and pass away.
- The community will change as businesses start up and shut down, land is cleared, and landmarks disappear.
The list goes on.
I’ll change too. It’s just that this part of my life and I will not change together. It’s hard to give that up. But how can I cling to a vapor? My reality on earth is temporary. As important as life is to me right now, I don’t want it to weaken the anticipation of the life to come, the everlasting life.
One day last week, I started out the day with a friend and dusty chaff in a soybean field. It was a lovely way to celebrate my favorite season: the dry plains that stretch into the horizon, the banter of voices over the radios, the roar of machinery, the swirling haze of dust every time the combine approaches. There is something about growing up on a farm that makes the joy of the countryside stick in your blood.
But in the afternoon, I drove to the city to shop. Within minutes, I had exchanged the hazy corn and bean fields for the asphalt and concrete of the glaring city. And I loved it, as I always do. Right down to the traffic (as long as I’m not in a hurry).
After inhaling the exotic spices in the Asian Market, I had fun browsing up and down the aisles of Wal-Mart with a short list and a lot of time. Of course, I did this in a Wal-Mart that is sometimes referred to as “ghetto-mart.” But it’s my favorite Wal-Mart because one can escape the SUV, soccer-mom rush that usually accompanies Wal-Mart trips closer to home.
After crossing a few things off of my list, I paid and exited the store. The cart man met me in the doorway, gave me a bright look, and said cheerily, “Goodbye, Saint! Have a nice day. Praise the Lord!” And I smiled all of the way out to my car.
In fact, my heart was still warm even after 30 minutes of wandering around on obscure backstreets that inevitably turned into dead ends. (I had left the directions to my friend’s orchestra concert on my nightstand.) I told myself not to despair of ever hearing her play the violin and stopped at Arby’s for directions (and roast beef and curly fries, if you must know). I chatted with the helpful cashier and then tried not to spill the oozing Arby’s sauce on my shirt as I embarked on the remainder of my journey.
The free concert was lovely, but there was a catch: it was in an assisted living facility and I was the only person in the audience under 50 (or maybe 70). But I didn’t care because I had a great view. Plus, I didn’t feel out of place tapping my feet or humming my way along through “The Sound of Music”, “Chicago”, and “Phantom of the Opera.”
While I was on the 15th floor of an office building in downtown Chicago, my siblings were lounging in a plaza across the street, discussing how I had been strong and calm before my appointment. “But when she comes out, she will collapse.”
They were right. Of course they were. They had watched me meticulously gathering my paperwork over the last several months. I had read everything once, twice, a dozen times. They had seen me bend over backwards to satisfy the requirements of a Spanish residence visa.
Fifteen stories up in the one-room Spanish consulate, I watched two other applicants turned away due to unsatisfactory paperwork. Would I be next? I had tried so hard, but had I missed something? They called my name.
I was so nervous that I couldn’t even read the tidy sticky notes that I had stuck to my paper-clipped and stapled stacks of paper.
“Application form?” The accented voice was muted through the glass window.
I slid the form through the slot. Why didn’t they have personal interview rooms instead of making us feel like paroled prisoners requesting our belongings?
“Letter of invitation?”
Another man approached and looked over my interviewer’s shoulder. They discussed something in great length and jotted some notes on my application form. I stood, breathless until nearly purple. Was something wrong? Didn’t I have the right papers?
The second man asked me a few questions with an alarmingly furrowed brow. I deflated. But it was okay. I would have to start over with some of it. But at least I could go home now. I could just climb in that shiny elevator and disappear.
But the man said, “Okay, I trust you. I will try to get it to you in time.”
I wasn’t sure what he was “trusting” me about. The answers to the questions he had asked were on the papers in front of him. But I didn’t ask him to explain himself. Prolonging our talk felt risky.
“Proof of insurance?”
I slid my translated insurance letter through the slot. The list went on until I had handed over every one of my documents. There were no complaints, no outbursts, no declarations that I hadn’t gathered the correct things.
The interviewer gave me a curious glance as I packed up my things. Perhaps he was analyzing how I would survive in Europe. But I didn’t care because gliding down 15 floors in a polished elevator was my red carpet.
Now the waiting would begin, and with it came the possibility of a rejected application. But for today, I could be done!
That is why I collapsed when I saw my siblings waiting for me in the plaza. And then we went to Giordano’s for celebratory deep dish pizza.
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.
I have spent most of my summers in humid Illinois, a few in Mexico, and last summer in Phoenix, Arizona. Yet, every time spring yields to an overpowering summer, the heat catches me off guard.
Sure there are ways to survive even without air conditioning. Here in North Africa, spray bottles, fans, popsicles, and cold water bottles come to mind.
The sun hovers directly above the city and beats its rays into the vast stretches of concrete and tile. Don’t picture me lounging on lush green grass under a generous shade tree. If I reclined on the ground, I would probably fry like an egg. And most of the shade comes when the sun dips behind the concrete buildings.
I have little energy. Staying hydrated is a chore. Headaches are routine. Sometimes I’m even sick to my stomach.
Yet, this miserable heat brings out the camaraderie that wouldn’t be here if the weather were perfect. After the sun goes down, people unite on the streets, visiting, shopping, or just watching the world go by. The carefree atmosphere comes from the underlying sensation of “Whew! We survived another day together!”
…to bring you some special news. Yesterday, on the other side of the Atlantic, a little boy was born.
Long before he was born, he had staked his claim on our hearts. We interceded for his life and his future as we prepared for him to counterbalance our adult world with the innocent perspective of a child. In anticipating a fresh, unsoiled life, it was easy to see how jaded we had let the world make us.
I started to look for baby things as soon as I heard he was coming. I could picture him snuggled in sleeper pants, sucking his thumb and hugging his stuffed Pooh bear. I could see him flipping through books, absorbing pictures and words in his brilliant little brain.
Now he is here and he has made me an aunt. Welcome to our world, Albert Harris!
Yearning to be there instead of here Where the ones who know you best Still love you most; Yet, seeing a bigger picture And a God who is stronger Than our longings.