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Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Reluctant Stayer

I am contemplating a move back to one of my home countries. It's a strange thought. They say you can never go home again but maybe that's not true. Oddly enough, just as I'm getting my life in order, I reach out for uncertainty once more. I have my master's degree, I have finally figured out how to have an orderly room, I'm steadily working my way through crafts/books/movies, and I know how life works. Except that is the curse of the TCK, isn't it? Or perhaps the global nomad, now that I am grown. Once life seems to settle, we become unsettled and search for change as a means of entering into the familiar. For us, change is life.

As I carefully dusted my bedroom/living space this evening, a sudden wave of sadness hit. I realized that if my plans came to fruition, I would soon take to the skies with just one suitcase in each hand; all my earthly belongings vacuum sealed into those oblong packages. I would not have the luxury of an ocean shipment, or perhaps shipments travel by air now, I'm not exactly sure. It's been 17 years since our last delivery of cardboard boxes, each carefully marked with a number such as 3/52 (52 being the total) and a brief description thick black inked on the side.

I would have to take the essentials, such as clothes, shoes, and perhaps a small photo album. I would not be able to jam in my fair trade elephant and giraffe set from California, my miniature wooden elephant with a rolling ball in its tummy from a street market in Ireland, my beautiful blue ceramic tea set from Taiwan, my handmade couple sitting on a log from my student in South Korea, my child-size porcelain tea cup from a boot sale in England, or my vintage decorative wooden clogs from the Netherlands. My most recent addition, an intricately hand carved wax candle from Holland, MI, would have to stay behind.

For a brief moment I asked myself, What is more important? Possessions or People? I caught myself reacting in pain as my instinctive answer was the first. I knew why I thought so. Even though the summer threat of wildfires had been of little concern, as I'd blithely said, Let it all burn, and simply packed a small bag with essentials and a childhood stuffed toy, now I found myself wanting to hold tightly to it all. The material was not what mattered. The memories they represented did.

The fair trade elephant and giraffe set I found at a little stall in the Galleria Mall when it had newly opened. I picked them up, carefully examined them for nicks, then counted out my dollars. I was still in the frugal stage, saving up to complete graduate school debt-free, so spending money was a luxury. Yet I knew I had to buy these pieces for even though I'd never been to the parts of the African continent that they came from, they represented a piece of my African heritage that I cherished. I was born and raised on the African continent in three countries by the age of 15.

My miniature wooden elephant was sitting on a shelf in a small shop in the street market my best friend and I discovered on our journey through Europe last summer. We stepped in briefly to sample cheeses then realized we'd entered a place of delightful sensory experiences and wandered around slowly, touching, tasting, and smelling. The small shop with the elephant had an array of wooden curios but the little elephant was affordable and would travel well as we still had several countries to visit and limited space in our carry on bags.

I picked up the ceramic tea set in the airport in Taiwan. Somehow the night market was the only souvenir place I visited on my whirlwind 5-day trip to see my sister that spring so the airport was my last resort for Asian gifts. I spotted the tea set and instantly knew it belonged on my bookshelf. It reminded me of the time 10 years prior, on our first visit to Taiwan, when we'd sat on the floor in a kind person's house and he'd served tea to all the touring choir members. It was a cold night and the small cups filled with steaming herbal fragrance cheered our hearts.

That same year I left home for the first time, traveling halfway around the world to teach little ones how to speak English and adults about God. One of my students made little figurines as a hobby; fashioning them out of a feather-light substance and carefully painting each detail in bright colours. At our end-of-the-semester party, she presented me with a young couple on a log. I took it with high hopes that one day, it would be my story. I am still waiting. . .

The porcelain tea cup must have cost me 25 pence or maybe a pound at the most. I loved shopping at boot sales, looking for the bargains, handing over the British coins and relishing the fact that they had not yet adopted the euro as their currency. It was the last time I stayed at my grandmother's house, before life got difficult and I no longer visited the place and the people I'd called home. I climbed the stairs slowly, remembering how I'd sit on the bottom as a child and listen late at night through the door to the adults talking in the next room. I breathed in the damp English air as I burrowed deep into my borrowed jacket. I packed the porcelain cup carefully, stepped into my father's car, buckled my seat belt, and we drove down the street and turned the corner, passed the fish and chips shop, and then it was all gone.

I watched the man carving my miniature wooden clogs at the famous cheese market in the Netherlands one year. After the cheese selling demonstration and a sample of traditional Dutch cheese, I found a crowd gathered around the artisan as he engaged in his age-old trade. Though pricey, I willingly paid for the clogs that would take a place of prominence in my display of knick-knacks. That day I breathed deep of salt air and listened to my grandfather speak in his thick Dutch accent. My grandparents learned English so they could communicate with us and I was forever grateful we could share language and not just genetics.

This summer I visited the Dutch village in Holland, Michigan, where I was fascinated by the trademark carved candles in ornate rich designs. A candle purchased more than 30 years prior had traveled the world with our family and early that year had made one final trek from a previous overseas home where a friend had purchased it cheap at a leaving sale. The candle had returned to me in a full circle way. Yet it was battered and bruised from its travels so I chose a beautiful new candle to create my own tradition. Now I fear I will have to leave it behind before I've had a chance to create memories.

I read an article just today about Stayers and Goers. I have been a Stayer for 17 years. There have been brief periods of Going, a week here, a summer there. Yet each time I returned to the somewhat familiar. Now I consider becoming a Goer. It has been a long time coming, I sense it is the right time and yet I'm sad at what it means. To be a Goer means I am no longer a Stayer. It will take time for me to settle my roots, to purchase little mementos that capture a slice of precious memories, to know I can trust those in my life with my story. I am worried that I'll forget the stories from this life because my heart cannot hold much pain or sadness and will compartmentalize these 17 years as it did the years before. I can see myself going through the grieving process and I am sad that this is my reality now. I know I must leave because this place has never felt like home but I worry that the next place won't be home either.

For the global nomad, the TCK, the restless wanderer, there are many pieces that represent life. One of those pieces are the belongings that lend a sense of belonging in a frame of time. Perhaps I will one day be marking cardboard boxes with thick black ink, knowing that inside I've placed carefully wrapped stories of who I am and who I was. Perhaps some of those pieces will arrive fractured or shattered or be stolen along the way. I must learn to hold them lightly even as I learn to assign identity to my persona and not the possessions I can feel and see. Each piece is valuable and holds memories, but none of them can replace the people.

Should I ask myself that question again, Which is more valuable, possessions or people? I hope my heart will echo instinctively, the people. For it is the possessions that reflect the people, each reminding me that who I was and who I am is because of each person in my life. And that. . .is worth letting go.

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