A different kind of beginning

(My new blog can be found at — theytoldmeidbefine.com — for those interested in keeping up)

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I thought my ‘coming home’ story in July would be my last post on this blog. More than anything, I think that says a lot about how simple I thought coming home would actually be.

There is a community of people, I’m discovering, who have tried returning from the road only to find that home has changed, that friends have changed, that they’ve changed. I discovered this community, not because I was looking for it, but because they knew I would need to be found (to those people who reached out to me, thank you). Within the first week being back in San Diego, friends who grew up in military or missionary families, who studied abroad, who’ve already tried coming back, messaged me with ‘how are you really?’s and more than one ‘hang in there’ – little liferafts that I didn’t even know I needed.

“Moving back is bittersweet,” a good friend reassured me over chat as I huddled under the lip of the kitchen counter around midnight, the sound of 4th of July fireworks still echoing gloriously in the back of my head, the smell of American-summer breezes still caressing strands of my tossled hair. My first 24 hours Stateside were glorious, but they had not been what I’d expected. “I’ve dealt with going back many times,” my friend told me. Military kid. “It looks like it did. In some ways maybe it feels that way. But it’s not like it was, and it won’t be.”

I lost two things that night – the idea of coming back to the home I grew up in and falling right back into where everything left off, and the promise of being able to return to Prague. Because Prague will change too.

I’ve also discovered a community of people who have no clue what they’re doing with their life. These people I stumbled across on accident as well. Most of them I’ve known for years, but because I’ve always been the ‘man with a plan’ they never confided in me just how directionless they were. Probably for the best. I would have judged. I would have patronized sympathetically, and then I would have judged so hard.

But the longer I’m home, the more I realize just how far into my quarter-life crisis I really am. All my pretty plans are falling apart and the ones that remain intact I have begun to dissembled with my own bare, determined hands. And with this terrifying liberation, I find myself closer to the other wanderers of the world, waiting for direction, hoping in the promise that God has a plan for our lives.

No one talks about being lost. No one my age. We rush from goal to goal, trying to make our place in the world. Trying to meet the expectations of our families and communities. Trying to prove to ourselves that we have a purpose. We don’t have time to be lost.

And yet I think that’s what many of us need: time to realize where our strength comes from. Time to realize that we can’t save ourselves. Our journeys are not our own. Our destinies are written in the stars by the stars’ Master-Planner, and His plan may include twists and lulls that we never counted on.

I wish someone had told me it was okay to be here (here being that weird, undefinable stage of “um, so what next?”). Actually, several people told me it was okay to be here. I just wish I had listened sooner.

So I suppose that’s why I’m writing again. (I’ve got a new blog, though. Take a look at it here!) This is how I process, definitely. But this is also how I reach out. If my trek through the lost years of being twenty-something help embolden my fellow sojourners, then it’s worth it to keep blogging. This is for the communities who’ve helped me come home, who’ve welcomed me into the ranks of the wandering. And for those who followed me through Prague, may I just say, ‘thank you.’ 

Here’s to the next step.

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St. Patrick’s Christmas Tree

I think maybe it’s time I explain why my Christmas tree is still up. In March.

Believe it or not, I have a reason beyond just my usual inability to adapt to real, adult responsibilities, like folding my towels or emptying my trash instead of just starting a new bag and letting the full ones pile up in the corner (the key to making this work is to use decorative bags – if it doesn’t look like trash anymore, what’s the harm?).

But in order to explain why my Christmas tree is still standing atop my accordion case, I first have to tell you three short stories.

The first story is about the day I should have taken my tree down. The second story is about the day I tried to take my tree down. And the third story is about St. Patrick’s Day.

*The First Story*

January 5, 2015

It wasn’t snowing anymore, but the moisture in the air made the earth seem colder than it probably was as we waited at the bus stop. Jerry had agreed to take Sarah to the airport because I had to teach, but she wanted to walk me down to my bus to say ‘goodbye.’ Sarah is one of the few people in the world who knows the bulk of my fears and insecurities, and still chooses to associate with me in public. She knows that I have a paranoia about odd-numbered years and ‘people grease’ (don’t ask) and she knew that the year looming in front of us was currently winning the Mary v. Adult Life war. But she didn’t chide or even console. She just stood there in her pretty red coat, keeping my mind off the cold and the worries of tomorrow with her quiet, comforting presence.

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I waited for Sarah to come to Prague for a year. We first started planning the Christmas before when I was home for Deborah’s wedding. One night we drove to the beach, armed with a thermos of hot chocolate and pockets full of jelly beans (my idea), and I said she just needed to come visit me already. We decided December would work best, so I began my 12-month vigil. Sarah didn’t just come for Christmas – she was Christmas. She was a slice of home, a piece of something I’m sure about: that there will always be people I love waiting for me somewhere.

So when I boarded the bus and watched her fade away in the foggy back window, I mentally set ‘Christmas’ on my calendar to whenever I next get to see that pretty face.

When I got home that evening, tired and lonely, I found my room spotless and one last Christmas gift on my bed with a handwritten note (I wasn’t able to find any of my pens for several weeks after this, but being able to see the floor again was kind of cool).

I decided then that I couldn’t take down my tree just yet. It was the last piece of Sarah that I had left, the last piece of Christmas and 2014 and home – the last promise of everything being ‘alright’ for just a moment.

*The Second Story*

January 18, 2015

This was the day I meant to take the tree down. I ripped down just about everything else in my room. In my defense, it had been a tough week. It seems that I get in trouble as much as (if not more than) my students. Our extremely intimidating Vice Head had to come into my class to tell me we were being too loud. I forgot to update my public transit pass and rode as a černý pasažér – “black passenger” – for three days without knowing it, followed by an hour wait in a freezing metro to get a new pass. I came face-to-face with the fact that distance puts strain on relationships and (finally) with the fact that when this school year ends, I have to leave Prague (I’m now reminded of that on a weekly basis from teary-eyed fourth graders begging me to stay. Talk about a guilt-trip). Feeling haunted by my odd-numbered year and my complete void of plans for my return home, I broke down and binged on cheap Czech candy and popcorn because I’m still unable to handle life like a grown-up.

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Adult life was kicking this poor expat in the shins and it hurt. So on Sunday afternoon, down came my paper lanterns and my picture posters. My seashells and bottles found themselves shoved onto a shelf out of the way in my desperate attempt to ‘start fresh.’ But the tree I could not take down. I tried. I thought about it for about two seconds. But with the lights on and all my earrings, beads and bobbles mailed to me from folks back home, and the handmade Czech ornaments (gifts from friends over the past two years here), it didn’t look like a tree as much as it looked like a piece of dry land to climb up on. A little piece of safety decorated with my past, my present and tiny promises of my future. It was both the home I have begun to long for immensely and the home I’ve been creating here in Prague. But mostly it was the reminder of the hope I clung to: somewhere in the world, there will always be people I love waiting for me.

So as I made plans to burn my paper lanterns, I let the tree stay up.

*The Third Story*

March 17, 2015

Today was the day I planned to put the tree away. Valentine’s came and went, and even though I did put hearts on my window, I couldn’t bring myself to take down the tree. It had to be today. It had to be St. Patrick’s Day.

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As you may have noticed by now, the tree has become a lot more than just a piece of plastic strung with lights and cheap jewelry. I’ve been trying to figure out myself why this darn tree means so much to me.

I found the answer in cookies.

No, this is not another story where Mary makes bad food choices. It’s about our St. Patrick’s Day party for the Girl’s Club our church puts on. We played Irish folk music, decked everything out in green and made rainbow cookies. Fittingly, we told the story of Noah during our devotional – another story of a rainbow, but one much more valuable than a pot of gold. The first rainbow was a promise from God to Noah, I explained to the girls. It was a sign of God’s faithfulness.

“As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest,
cold and heat,
summer and winter,
day and night
will never cease.”
Genesis 8:22

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When the girls went home and the last of the cookie dough scraps had been cleaned up, I made myself a cup of tea (okay, okay, it turned into three cups, but just because I haven’t mastered portion control yet) and watched the rain trickle down the window pane as the last few Irish folk songs played out on the CD.

God has been faithful to me. Looking back over the short span of my existence, even in the darkest, most unsure moments, he has been there holding me fast. But he knows that my anxious heart is prone to wander. He knows that humans are weak and walk easily away from what they cannot see. So he gave us rainbows. He gave us a visible reminder of his love for us and of his faithfulness.

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My Christmas tree, I think, is an important reminder for me. It’s a visible promise of a hope for a future that isn’t as dark and lonely as it can sometimes feel. No matter where I am in the world, there is a God who loves me.

And as long as God’s faithfulness stands, so will my Christmas tree.

Things I’ve learned from writing letters

Sometimes life keeps us busy and sometimes Netflix masquerading as life keeps us busy.

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I’ve been away from home for a year and four months. It’s been nine months since I last visited and it’ll be nine more before I’m home for good. Kind of a long time to be away. From live-at-home college student to nine time-zones away from my family, I have found unexpected, inexpressible comfort in snail mail.

As a kid, I tried keeping pen pals but I would eventually lose enthusiasm and forget to write back. Aren’t we glad to know I have always been slightly lazy and self-absorbed.

But here, on the other side of the world, handwritten letters are my life-line. They’re the closest thing I have to home – they’re genuine pieces of it, actually. They’re slivers of someone’s heart, inked over with love and mailed with an official stamp that says, “This person cares enough about you to buy a half-inch scrap of sticky paper from the US government.”

It means a lot.

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But in writing letters I’ve learned things about myself, about people and about life. I’d like to share a few.

    1. Heart is in the content, soul is in the detail – We pour our hearts out in letters – things we like, people we care about, thoughts that have been weighing on our minds. But the things that best reflect the finer aspects of who we are, often, are unwritten. They’re the choice of stationary (or lack thereof), the doodles in the margins or on the envelopes, the tidiness of the address or the lilt of the pen. These things say: attention to detail, free spirit, practical, steady. I like that I have a friend who only sends me postcards from our hometown and one who always takes up the entire front of the envelope with my name in different fonts. I like that I can immediately recognize letters from one of my fellow expats because he has used the exact same sized envelope for the last year, and frankly, it’s pretty big. I like seeing who people are when they put themselves through the mail.
    2. Beauty comes in waiting – Sometimes it takes a week or two, sometimes it takes several months to hear back from people. Part of this is that letters take time to travel and I’ve had the pleasure of sending letters to some of the remotest corners of the world this year. I learned early not to be too antsy in waiting for replies. There was a time when I’d check the mailbox twice a day and feel the crushing disappointment every time it was empty. But if we spend our whole lives waiting at the foot of the stairs for the mailman (which I have done), we will miss the joys that lay outside our door. It’s been wonderful to come home and be surprised by a letter sitting on the counter for me, knowing that it was well-waited for, not in anxiousness but in peaceful anticipation.
    3. The weather matters – Believe it or not, I love hearing about what the weather is like back home. All someone has to do is say, “It’s still hot here” and the scenes of San Diego’s Indian Summers come flooding off the page – hot days with cool nights, air more humid than it was in August as it waits for the first showers of September or October to wash through, and skies that get just a little hazy. It brings me right back to my front door step or to the Bonita main street. Sometimes friends will write me and say nothing much has changed – assuming that life abroad is inherently more interesting than life at home. But life is in the details, like weather and car problems and the new frozen yogurt flavor you are currently obsessed over. Don’t deprive me of the details.
    4. Don’t be picky in accepting love – As a kid, getting letters was all about me. It took a long time for me to learn that accepting love is as important as giving it. I am touched by the people who have mailed me notes, birthday cards and little care packages. Some of them completely surprised me because I just didn’t have the senders on my “good friends” radar when I left home. But it has been a blessing to receive and to return. Granted, getting jars of peanut butter, glow sticks, sticker pads, books and fluffy socks in the mail is a feeling that cannot be compared to anything else in this world, but I’m more grateful for the friendships that have come with them. As someone who always tried to fit in with the “perfect friend group” in the early years of high school (ahh, high school), discovering the joy of learning to love people because they loved you first has been eye-opening, humbling and wonderful.
    5. It’s never too late to start again Part of the reason why I was such a horrible pen-pal as a kid (and I’ll be the first to admit that part of me just quit when I realized I would never be able to afford Lisa Frank stationary), was because I felt like if I didn’t respond right away I couldn’t respond at all. How sweet it’s been to find that you can pick up a pen months after your last response and find both words and recipients ready to begin the adventure again. I got three letters from one of my more persistent friends before it became apparent that I just wasn’t going to write back. She stopped writing. I felt horrible. Sometimes life keeps us busy and sometimes Netflix masquerading as life keeps us busy. Finally I bought new stamps and wrote her a quick note. And just like that the steady flow of airborne paper returned, as did the delight in knowing I have a friend thinking about me on the other side of the world.
    6. Sharing life is important – Look, I realize that we all have our close-knit groups, our people, our bffs. Whatever. But we need people in our lives. People who see us from the outside, with whom we can share glimpses of our insides. We need support and accountability and the simple validation that a world exists outside our immediate geographical and emotional circumference. And we need people who will challenge us to rise to the calling of being that validation for others. Sharing our stories, even in small pieces, is both a pleasure and a privilege and I have been touched beyond measure by those who’ve both listened to mine and sent me theirs.

I save all my letters in a box under my bed. They are my most cherished souvenirs from my time abroad . . . Mementos to remind me that no matter where in the world we travel, the most amazing things we will ever discover will be love and friendship.

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