Making sense of returning “home.” Sort of.

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I stifled a laugh as I flattened the crumpled slip of paper.

“Think of the danger while things are going smoothly,” it read.

Oh, fortune, what is this “going smoothly” to which you refer?

It’s not the first time I’ve encountered a fortune/proverb at a particularly pivotal time in my life. Chinese fortune cookies, after all, have the worst timing.

On this particular occasion, I had to salvage the message from the mangled remains of the smashed fortune cookie tucked into my takeout dinner.

Appropriate.

The past couple of months since I left Kenya have been a blur of travel, emotions, reunions, changes, opportunities – and I’ve found myself stuck. When I’m not sure what to do or how to think, I write it out. This time, I’ve been … wordless.

No words? Let’s try numbers.

In an attempt to make sense of the past few months, I opened Google Maps and began adding in roughly each location I’ve been since I left Nairobi, denoted by airport or by “couch surfing.”

Nairobi – Dubai – Glasgow – Belfast – Dublin – Boston – Charlotte – Asheville – Lisbon, Ohio – Grove City, Pa. – Bozeman, Mont. (yes, you read that right) – Boulder, Colo. – Lisbon – Grove City – Pittsburgh – Lisbon

I clicked “Get Directions” and waited.

A map of the world popped up, green pins tagging the locations. A short note:

“We could not calculate directions between Nairobi, Kenya and Lisbon, OH.”

It was almost like an existential revelation.

Google Maps, I know what you mean.

I did my own quick, rough calculations. Within nine weeks, I:

  • traveled approximately 15,000 miles
  • visited seven airports
  • set foot on four continents
  • eight time zone changes
  • slept in about 25 different locations

At some point along the way, my body cried “Uncle.”

It’s a five-hour time difference now? Jet lag? What jet lag? Pshaw. Bring it on.

The ugly American?

I’ve tried over and over to verbalize what it’s like.

What it’s like for someone to fit into a culture vastly different from their own, spending months or years industriously absorbing information and learning how to cope and/or thrive there, only to be ripped out of that culture and deposited back on “home” soil (or in this case, Boston Logan airport), listening to the hyperbolic gushing of a 20-something girl oozing all-American-ness:

“I am back in the USA. I could cry, I am so happy.”

In that moment, I want to be anywhere but there, listening to her. She is everything I don’t want to be at the moment – another American, loudly ticking off the conveniences lived without for ages. Air conditioning. Toilets that flushed the right way. Just, oh, just … everything.

The disorientation lasts for days. Most of those days were in the company of friends in the U.K. But some are back in the U.S.

In some ways, it’s easy. Too easy. Slipping back into a “normal” life. I don’t want it to be easy.

But the healing has come though. In bits and pieces.

It comes in the moment when I drink from a pure mountain stream in Scotland, the novelty magnified by a year of off-limits tap water. It comes in the early morning, as I go out for a long-overdue run, my bare feet digging into the sand of a northern Irish beach. It comes in those quiet times, when I find a few words and write them, by hand, in my journal. It comes with the first whiff of a Montana mountain pine forest, that unique smell with hints of earth, cinnamon and citrus undertones. It comes when I’m running along a single-track trail in western Pennsylvania that I’ve run so many times before, the memories keeping time with my steps.

The sound. Then: silence.

In a city of unpredictability such as Nairobi, noise is a constant.

It’s one of the reasons why it took months for me to settle into the rhythm of life in the rapidly expanding international hub. Traffic. Street hawkers. Construction. The muezzin, call to prayer. Traveling musical acts advertising this or that, set up on flatbed trucks, speakers full blast, with bass loud enough to vibrate through the floors of my apartment – even from a quarter of a mile away.

I rued that noise.

But now I miss it.

It’s a strange revelation for someone who cherishes quiet time and alone-ness.

Kenyan friends who have been to the U.S. complain about driving here. It’s boring, they say. Too orderly. No matatus overtaking on sidewalks. No potholes. No speed bumps randomly rising out of the pavement in the middle of nowhere.

Driving should be an adventure, they say.

I would revise that statement a bit.

Life should be an adventure.

It almost feels like I left my adventure behind.

montana_fireNo, I’m not about to equate my life now to a barren wasteland. I promise.

One day, a friend and I hiked up to Pine Creek Lake near Livingston, Mont. It was a clear August day. As we climbed higher, the trail wound through large areas ravaged by a forest fire.

The scene was eery, stark. The silence was absolute. Nothing moved. Not even the wind.

I fell behind, pausing for a moment.

I know the science of it: sometimes, dense Western pine forests need fire to stay healthy. It’s a raw picture of destruction leading to regeneration. But standing there in the utter silence, I realized just how far I was from the Nairobi chaos. I realized, within that blackened swath, there might be some answers.

Or, at least, some moments of reflection.

At first, all you see are the burned husks piercing the sky like jagged needles or littering the ground like burned matchsticks. The sun glints off ebony-colored bark, its sheen like the scales of a fish.

It’s eery, but also, strangely beautiful.

montana_flowersIt’s also promising.

Take another look.

There. Among the charcoal-colored rocks and stumps, little green shoots, valiantly pushing through the burned earth. Over there. A small cluster of wildflowers providing a burst of color.

There is life. New life.

I am no philosopher. Although, I enjoy a good story about Kant just as much as anyone, I suppose.

But that moment, standing in the middle of a fire-ravaged mountain trail, was a breakthrough.

I was reminded of Isaiah 61.

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion—to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.

Renewal and regeneration are recurring themes throughout the Bible, the contrast to barrenness and death.

I don’t pretend to understand it all, but I’m thankful for the reminders.

What’s next? Unexpected opportunity, that’s what.

Part of my attempt to ease back into the U.S included tagging along on a three-week road trip to and from Montana. I thought it would be a good way to work through the transitions, in neutral territory, so to speak.

I didn’t expect opportunity to fall right into my lap in the process.

As I reunited with some friends, I shared about how I plan to go back to East Africa for a longer term. I then answered the inevitable question of “What’s next while you’re in the U.S.?” with my often-repeated spiel:

Oh, you know, find something temporary that will allow me to keep my writing sharp. (Keep in mind, I had no concrete idea where or how to snag that ideal temp job.)

Response? Oh, well, here’s a temporary four-month newspaper gig filling in for a reporter on maternity leave. Want it?

BOOM.

Idea, meet reality. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: God has a phenomenal sense of comedic timing. I accepted – even though I had no car and no housing in Montana.

But God just gift-wrapped another step in my crazy journey with a giant, flippin’ bow. How could I turn it down?

Fast forward by a couple of weeks: I have a car. And I think I have housing. So, there’s that, right?

I even found out my bear spray hasn’t expired yet. Rejoicing ensued.

As I get ready for yet another road trip across the country, it’s reminiscent of another such trip or two at transition times in my life. My heart is in Africa. But for now, my path takes me to the mountains.

For the first time in a while, it feels right.

montana_pinecreeklake

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3 responses to “Making sense of returning “home.” Sort of.

    • I’ll be working in Livingston. Haha. I love winters (especially Western ones), but I’m interested to see how I adjust since it’s been a while. 🙂

  1. Pingback: Montana: Telling the story, wherever it is | from the writer's notepad·

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