Let’s leave grazing to cows and go
Where we know what everyone really intends
Where we can walk around without clothes on.
–from Rumi’s Let’s Go Home
The space between arriving and departing can be rich and profound, but be warned: if still waters run deep then diving down there swirls the sludge around. What was lodged and decaying may surface. It can be disruptive. Be ready!
It’s summer, you’re on vacation. There you are, doing the backstroke, eyes closed, sun on your face, when BAM! You run right into a smelly mass of floating tires and rotting logs. It’s not pretty.
Arriving Home Part I
Though I attended five different elementary schools, two middle schools, and lived in six dwellings, four cities, and two states before seventh grade, I am an Oly Girl. My parents were both born and raised in Olympia, Washington and my father’s family goes back a few generations. Despite having bounced from coast to coast seven times, knowing my heritage grounded me in the years before I left for love.
We have Oly Girl t-shirts and bumper stickers, and some even strut their Oly pride on their license plates. We are spirited and rowdy feminists who wave the rainbow flag. We swim in the bay, drink coffee, shop local and organic, and know how to build a campfire, drive a boat, and change a tire. We are artists, environmentalists, educators and lobbyists. We are active mothers and animal lovers. We get involved. We march when it’s right. We donate to what matters. We love kitschy cool, vintage chic. We’re all funny as hell if you hang around long enough to know us and finally, we don’t leave.
So, imagine my alarm when I see Mount Rainier and the flat, wooded islands below the descending plane and I feel…nothing. No excitement, no anxiety, no butterflies, no sense of calm. Am I no longer connected here? Don’t I belong here? What’s wrong with me?? I panic, momentarily.
Luckily, I have a coach’s brain and see the opportunity in just about any situation. I chose to see this lack of enthusiasm as just another milestone in my expat journey. After 14 years abroad, I’m finally feeling rooted in my little Italian house on the hill. I was in the middle of things when we departed. I had lavender to harvest, yoga to practice, workshops to create and work to do, but it was time to come home.
It took some time to warm up to the American lifestyle after being gone a year and a half. I felt like I was peering in from behind a one way mirror or waiting for the perfect turn to jump back into the rhythm of things.
But, after a week or so, the salt air began to corrode my blase’ attitude and my heart and lungs swelled at the sight of placid inlet waters, the omnipresent mountain, ferry boats and the Space Needle. There was the smell of the sun on salted mudflats, and sounds of seagulls and ship horns. And in my mouth…oysters and clams, eggs benedict with crab and talk of the infamous geoduck. My senses awoke and I was home again.
When Past Meets Present
This trip was a series of hellos and goodbyes, unexpected reconnections and losses, and both internal and external “stuff” to sift through.
There was an old musty camp trunk, an unintentional time capsule. Everything my mom had saved from kindergarten on. Elementary school report cards and standardized test scores. Art projects and fifth grade valentines from people I still see on Facebook.
There were handwritten journals beginning in 1982. Letters to God (clearly written after reading Judy Bloom’s classic Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret). Records of my adolescent and young adult activities, observations, heartbreaks and thoughts. There were copies of letters typed on an old word processor and dialogues penned, sure to last an eternity when they no longer held space in my memory. Proof that he said what I no longer remembered.
After long conversations with old friends who “knew me then,” and hours pouring over the details of my young lovelife, I thought about how I got to the place where leaving Olympia or later, my entire country, was an acceptable decision, especially for love.
“Stay on the surface,” I tell myself determinedly. “Backstroke, remember??? Sun on the face? Sound of your own breath? ” But the days that followed filled with the proof of who I’d been and evidence of my much more vulnerable and authentic young self began swirling up from the depths. Let’s go home…Where we can walk around without clothes on.
My adolescent self craved and demanded authenticity. She had a coach’s brain and intuition, organic and unadulterated, still analytical, but with more access to her heart. There were moments reading, when I felt for her and worried about her vulnerability.
Scattered through the passing days, there were dinner parties with highschool friends and a class reunion, coffee with childhood teachers, a bedside visit and final goodbye, acknowledgment of past hurts and forgiveness. Then came the passing down of family silver, jewelry, crocheted afghans I remember my grandma making while watching her favorite evening shows in the 1980s.
About half way through the vacation, our apartment in Italy was robbed. Our landlord sent us pictures of my jewelry boxes scattered all over the bed with bits and pieces of my memory strewn from one end to the other. I could see the open and empty, tiny leather box given to me by my grandmother for high school graduation five months before she died.
It had been given to her by my grandfather when his ship docked in India in 1944. Inside the box was a bracelet of aquamarine stones. My mother’s mother had given it to me along with the letter he’d written her, still in its envelope. “I still have the letter,” I told myself as I felt my stomach creep up to my throat, trying not to show my panic.
Also inside that box was the pendent I’d had made out of my other grandmother’s wedding rings. I’d added an aquamarine stone when I got married so I could wear the two pieces together, a way to keep the gumption of my two grandmothers close to inspire me as I journeyed into married life in a foreign country.
The final piece that had been in that box was my great-aunt’s pearl and jade bracelet she’d bought during her time in Alaska. She’d worn it always and with everything. I’d asked for that after she died because it triggered such a strong visual memory of her when I put it on. It reminded me of her vive d’esprit.
I had no idea the value of any of these pieces. It really didn’t matter that we had no renters insurance because there could be no reimbursement of these memories. Again, my coach brain kicked in and I knew that I didn’t need the things to remember the love.
I spent days after the robbery letting go emotionally.
In the trunk of things in my parents storage, I’d just happened to come across the card my grandmother had given me nearly 30 years ago in which she explained the reason she was passing her precious gift on to me. I hadn’t even remembered I still had that card, but there it was: her wild handwriting I’d always struggled to read, as if to say, “It’s not the thing that ties us together.”
Almost a week after the burglary, a piece of my tooth broke off as chomped down on a cashew. A broken tooth during a vacation may sound like a dental emergency nightmare, yet after the initial alarm (“Oh no!! I just broke my tooth in a foreign country!!!” I apparently screeched.), the chronic ache I’d experienced for 13 years instantly disappeared. I’ve been pain free since.
The irony and emerging themes baffled and intrigued me. What was all this surfacing? My past mingling with my present? Lost and Found. New and Old. Before and After. Release of suffering. A softening border between my two lives. It felt delicious, unifying, and disorienting.
Holding On and Letting Go
As internationals, we are used to letting go. If we acquire too much it becomes a burden when it’s time to leave again, but what about those precious things? What about the people?
Lately, I’ve come to the conclusion that for me, home is where, and with whom, I feel most like my true self. It’s where I continue to grow and where the people around me grow, too.
We keep what reflects the best version of ourselves or pushes us to evolve. We keep what evokes joy without needing to ask how or why. We let go of things and relationships where the burden outweighs the value.
There is this liminal space between here and there. I’m not talking about the flight time, but that invisible dimension between who we were before we left and who we are when we return. Deep satisfaction comes to those of us who find a way to integrate the two; and be able to tease out what is worth keeping about who we were and knowing what we MUST release in order to embrace who, and where, we are today.
Ironically, after days of mindfully letting go pieces of my history, it was my grandfather’s cufflinks (a wedding gift from my mother to my husband) and my husband’s grandfather’s watch that were taken. But, the aquamarine set and everything else of mine was still there, and I’m still selfishly savoring the relief.
Six Practices for a Meaningful Visit “Home”
As a coach, I practice what I hope to inspire. Before I left for this vacation, I set an intention about what I wanted to experience and what I wanted to bring to the table. This one small effort changed the game. We must be clear about what we want to experience and what we are willing to contribute when visiting friends and family.
Though the outcome may be different for everyone, it’s important to know that you get to decide whether you become bogged down by the past or uplifted in your present. Personally, the following practices have served me well on family vacations and life, in general.
- Pay attention. Notice themes. What keeps coming up? What needs to be resolved? Where do you feel blocked when you are there?
- Keep assumptions in check. Just because it was that way in the past doesn’t mean it’s that way now. Leave assumptions and one-sided interpretations on the plane.
- Stay open and curious. Wonder more, judge less.
- Say yes to the offers that resonate with your intentions. The people that reach out to you are probably keepers.
- Invite authentic communication and meaningful conversations. Don’t be afraid of the ugly and uncomfortable.
- Be present where you are. You may not be able to see everyone, but your days will be longer (in a good way) and less hectic. Start fresh with people. Listen to them. They’ve changed too. Maybe you’ll actually relax.
Arriving Home Part II
On the way back to Italy, the customs officer in Amsterdam looks at my passport and carta di soggiorno. “You returning home?” he asks. My son and I were bumped up in line thanks to his EU passport, a definite bonus in July when the customs lines for American passport holders are spilling out into the corridors with American tourists in Europe.
I pause, subtly, maybe only I notice it, maybe it was only in my brain but indiscernible in my response time. “Am I returning home?” I ask myself.
“Yes,” I nodded. “We are.”
We must integrate what happens between arriving and departing in that other dimension; slowly and consciously fold it into our “other” life, abroad. These are not separate lives: before and after, past and present, here and there. We are the constant, the common denominator, in every space in between. Don’t look away from the re-emerging themes. Lean in and start stitching yourself whole again.
Author: Carolyn Parse Rizzo
Carolyn is a Certified Child Life Specialist, Healthcare and Vitality/Core Energy™ Coach and trainer living in Northern Italy with her multi-cultural, bi-lingual family. Her private practice, Interval Coaching and Consulting, supports all sectors of expats in building resilience through healthcare challenges and change. An expressive-arts enthusiast, Carolyn feeds her soul and builds grit by singing vintage tunes in local wineries with a 20 piece big band and practicing her Morning Walk up the foothills of the Alps. Carolyn’s definition of “home”? Home is where you feel like you!