The Battle for Belonging

At night these mostly bare walls with fresh paint echo more than they used to, bouncing each memory of the past six years back through my unquiet mind. The crickets and tree frogs sing a melody that is as commonplace to me here as the call to prayer and honking cars was when we lived in the Middle East. I haven’t stopped to notice it in a long time but in these still moments it is blaring in my ears, reminding me of all we are leaving behind.

A long-held dream is possibly just weeks away (the nature of overseas moves is always a little uncertain as we wait on visas and funding and a house to sell). I keep myself busy every waking hour but not just because my list of tasks to accomplish is long. If I sit in the quiet too long, the conflict inside begins to rage.

I see it in my daughter too, her sweet eyes filling up with tears when she asks for another doll accessory and I remind her we have to be selective in what we buy as we’ll only have so much room in the two suitcases each that will carry all our belongings with us to South Asia. We’re giving up a lot of things, sure. But what about the experiences, the people, the opportunities that we are leaving behind? I know the truth—that we will gain as much as we lose. My heart doesn’t always believe it though.

For sixteen years now this dream of living overseas has tumbled around inside of me. Fueled by five international trips in the past three years, fed by the stories we’ve heard from our refugee friends nearby, the dream has only grown. My husband had the seeds planted in his life early too when his parents hosted international workers in their home. The stories of faraway lands seemed otherworldly to an eight-year-old boy but the fire was ignited just the same. We’ve been working towards this for years. 

But still…

Last month every event seemed to be a last one. We didn’t make a big deal of it to the kids, didn’t want each day to be colored by, “oh, this is your last dance recital and tomorrow is your last Independence Day parade and next week is your last time to that friend’s house!” After a beautiful week with our best friends at the beach house where we have vacationed every summer for eleven years now, we made the long walk to our cars. It’s always hard to say goodbye to them because we live states apart anyway.

The pain didn’t grip me though until the moment I wrapped my arms around my friend to say goodbye. We knew each other when we were just foolish college kids. Life hasn’t turned out like we thought it would. In most ways it is so much better than we imagined though some realities are harder than we dreamed. I kissed her two precious girls goodbye, feeling like I was placing my own children in their car seats. I  lingered a moment to whisper  “I love you” to the little boy growing in her belly knowing I won’t get to hold him when he’s still tiny. He will be born a month after we leave. The ache claws at the back of my throat and I can’t look at her with the tears burning my eyes, so I quickly turn away. I will see her again before we leave but this will be the last time for a while that we hold this piece of home in our hands, this tradition we look forward to all year long.

I’ve called myself a “citizen of the world” and pride myself on passport stamps to exotic places. Not for the novelty of it but because I truly love to sit at the feet of people in cultures nothing like my own and learn from them. Everywhere I go I am always humbled by hospitality that dwarfs our own, am dumbstruck by how little I know and the biases I don’t realize I carry until I am face to face with them. I want to hear the stories that get silenced or we choose not to hear, find ways to make sure others listen, too. I am walking into that dream­—going to hard places where God is doing truly amazing things and hearing and seeing for myself, translating those experiences into stories that I hope will catapult more people out of their safe and sheltered places.

And yet…

I didn’t know how tangled the roots of this place had become around my heart. I should have known better. I was planted into this Georgia clay thirty-six years ago and though I’ve traveled far and wide from it, I have spent three decades of my life growing here. God gave us this beautiful house where our family has been sheltered and safe and we are relinquishing it for a flat in a city we have never even seen. I had the joy of watching the same man that first shared Christ’s love with me twenty year’s earlier sink my daughter under the waters of baptism in this place. I watch my two children rest their tired heads in the same bedroom I grew up in when they spend the night with my parents who live three miles away. This is home.

Even so…

The tug-of-war continues in my heart. This wrestling between permanence and a life free to go wherever God calls is nothing new and I imagine I’ll still be straining under the weight of it no matter what continent I call home for “this world is not our permanent home” (Hebrews 13:14). Whether we leave sweet iced tea behind for fragrant milky chai, we will always be missing something. We will always be longing for home yet we will never find it in this life. We will always battle for belonging even when we know we’re supposed to be set apart. 

My eyes grow heavy but I linger a few minutes longer to watch the twinkling of fireflies and listen to the song of frogs that will soon be a memory, the ticking of the large grandfather clock in the corner that will sit in storage for years to come. Tomorrow I’ll let go.

But not tonight…

Nicole T. Walters
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8 thoughts on “The Battle for Belonging

  1. So good to allow ourselves a minute to sit comfortably with the memories, to express the gratitude and linger over the blessings. I know you will have many more in the coming days, and I look forward to reading about them.

    • I avoid them more than I allow myself to sit. I am trying to make space in my day and in my heart for more lingering. Thank you friend!

  2. Beautiful Nicole. “We will always be longing for home yet we will never find it in this life.” Truth. Even when we are living where God plants us, our hearts still ache for something more. For now, God’s mercies cover us. Eventually, we will long no more.

    • Have you read Keeping Place by Jen Pollock Michel? It really impacted me on that level – that longing for home that one day will be filled. Thank you, friend!

  3. I love that this was published the day after my piece. You’re so right that we are cut from the same cloth. I struggle to stay and you are facing the reality of actually going. But I Iove your conclusion that we will always have a sense of unsettledness and longing because this world is not our home. I am so excited for you. This will be hard on so many levels, but I’m so excited for you that those dormant parts of you will be reactivated again. Praying for you, friend.

    • The sweet symmetry of that wasn’t lost on me. You settling down. Me uprooting. God is in both. There is ache in both. One day hope to meet you off the screen and praying for direction for your sweet family, too:)

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