Foreigners in a Familiar Land

A while back, as I was sitting on our front porch in Honduras, having a cherished morning of slow coffee drinking, rocking chair sitting, staring out at the palms and hibiscus peaking over our porch railings, I picked up my pen and journal and started writing. Coming off of a busy week of hosting a medical brigade, I felt a mixed jumble of emotions and thoughts.

As I started my rambling, this is what came to mind: a bubble.

Not the idea of a protective, sterile bubble as in “bubble-boy” nor the idea of “living in a bubble.” This bubble imagery was about the existence of those delicate yet oddly strong spheres and the way they move. Bubbles float along, just out of reach, bouncing along for a few minutes, then stopping to rest for a brief moment before the next slight wave of wind whisks them upward as they resume their slight hovering and swaying. This is what our lives as missionaries often feels like.

Not-so-gentle reminders of change
Our time back in the States last summer was wonderful and difficult, sometimes both fighting for the same moment. It was painfully brutal at times. Yes, traveling and logistics with a baby is always hard. But it wasn’t that. It was three weeks of reminders, and not-always-so-gentle reminders.

There were the reminders that we were missing out on a lot of life lived with family. There were reminders that our beloved city of Atlanta was no longer home. There were reminders that some of the treasured experiences and items we once enjoyed no longer held their merit. There were reminders that we had changed. Four years living in a foreign country, particularly in the developing world, will give you a perspective that is sometimes hard to articulate, a feeling of uncomfortableness Stateside.

Sometimes comical, sometimes overwhelming
Parts of the now foreign experience which is the United States were quite comical. There were moments of forgetting about things like crosswalk lights telling you when you can walk across a busy intersection in downtown Atlanta, so instead you just weave through traffic to cross the street, because that is simply what you do back home in Honduras. Or the funny times that you forget American phrases, or are telling a story and only the Spanish words come to mind.

Then there were the frustrating and overwhelming times of walking into a pharmacy and wanting to run out because you are so exasperated that there is literally an aisle of eye drops and you have no idea which one to buy for your baby. And finding yourself missing the simplicity of Latin pharmacies where you simply talk to the pharmacist behind the counter about what you are looking for and they bring you four options and you pick the best one. Then there were the times of walking into the supermarket and not realizing you are just standing and staring until your 4-year-old says, “Mommy, why are you just standing there with that weird look on your face?”

Comfortable and at-home looks different
Other parts were more a jolting recognition of the reality that life is quite different now. I began to notice some of these differences last time we were in Atlanta. I was sitting at our good friends' little girl's dance recital (think more hip-hop, jazz style, less ballet). Sitting in that recital was one of the most relaxing and most at-home-moments I had Stateside since being back. I wondered why, and when I looked around I realized I was by far a minority and behind me I actually heard ongoing conversations in Spanish as well. Being a minority and hearing languages other than English is comforting rather than different. The simple act of going through the McDonald's drive-through is comforting because the woman taking orders is Latina and has a familiar accent.

Neither place is really home
And yet, when you step foot back into Honduras, you are reminded that you aren’t really at home here either. You are greeted by the humidity, warm tropical air, and smoky smell; you breathe it in and it smells like home. Then you step into the resident line at immigration and the Honduran man behind you immediately starts to tell you in broken English that you are in the wrong line; and you politely tell him in Spanish, that, “No, we actually are residents of Honduras.” Or you walk into your favorite cafe and you have this sweet conversation with the waitress, who knows you and your little kids by now, but then you realize the minute you set foot into the restaurant everyone else had stopped talking and is turning and staring at you.

You are foreigners in a familiar land wherever your feet stand.

You feel like you are floating in this perpetual bubble that you can push, you can manipulate, you can stretch but can never truly break through, can never truly escape. You are floating right above two lands. Never fully grounded in one or the other.

You have brief reprieves of resting and touching down before the next gust carries you along, and there you find yourself suspended once again, floating above and always near but always slightly out of reach. You are living in the sometimes constrictive, sometimes beautiful, sometimes suffocating, sometimes liberating and yet restrictive glycerin existence of floating slightly out of reach. Yearning at times to just break through with a foot and dig your toes deep into the soil below, to feel firmly planted and established in one land or the other. And yet bubbles don’t allow for such reality.

Sometimes it is beautiful to view the world through the glycerin rainbow lens in front of you, with all its dancing colors that refract shimmers of light, making an almost magical looking world. Other times you yearn to break the bubble and to view the world a little clearer and a little simpler, a little less hazy and complicated, where there is constancy and stability. Where red is red, a square is a square, and the ground is firm and known beneath you, rather than ever-shifting.

Alas, and yet aren’t we all called to not live too comfortably, to not feel too at home here in this world?   

So, while the floating and shifting can be lonely, it is also beautiful. And in the beauty of loneliness comes forth solitude. Solitude is not loneliness. And solitude is needed at times to better live in community, to better love and serve others. I leave you with words from one of my favorite authors, Henri Nouwen, as he so elegantly encapsulates all this pushing and pulling, all the striving, reaching, and stretching.

“This difficult road is the road to conversion from loneliness to solitude. Instead of running away from our loneliness and trying to forget or deny it, we have to protect it and turn it into fruitful solitude ... The movement from loneliness to solitude, however, is the beginning of any spiritual life because it is the movement from the restless senses to the restful spirit, from the outward-reaching cravings to the inward-reaching search, from the fearful clinging to the fearless play.” — Henri Nouwen

Renee McLaughlin serves with MTW in La Ceiba, Honduras

Renee McLaughlin in La Ceiba Honduras Reflection on Feb 1, 2018

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