There are four normal stages of cultural adjustment. The first is called “the honey moon stage”, where everything is novel and wonderful; the second is called “culture shock”, and this is when the newness has worn off and even small difficulties seem catastrophic; the third is “adjustment”; and the last is “feeling at home”. I think I had the first two mixed up when I arrived in Guatemala. I wrote this short paragraph the in the first few days:
“The romance of leaving in my mind is never counterweighted with the reality of leaving. I imagined the leaving would be hard. I imagined culture shock to be real. I have traveled, I lived for a short period in another country before; I thought I knew. But the romance of living in mountains with volcanoes surrounding the city, teaching kindergarteners at a Christian school, experiencing another culture—it didn’t account for the reality of ashy air, dirty streets, the danger of getting amoebas or typhoid in a city that is difficult to get around in the day and dangerous at night. I thought I had already committed to trusting God: I signed the contract, I packed my bags, I got on the plane, but that soul-moving trust has come slowly. I have stepped in obedience, and am now learning to trust.”
Last week, I compared my feelings and wrote this:
“The city has grown on me. The houses are not just blocks of color anymore, and I’m beginning to appreciate the cement buildings. I like to watch the passersby on the street and they don’t seem like such strangers. There is still trash on the uneven, broken sidewalks and stray dogs wandering around leaving marks on everything, but I like the walk to the bus past the chipping-paint houses and school children. It really is no more dangerous than any other city. Even the shower is better than the first week, although it hasn’t changed at all and is still like trying to shower under a watering can. It’s funny how when one thing is uncomfortable for me, everything else supports my propensity towards dissatisfaction. How my heart has grown in just two short weeks! I’ve gone from being uncomfortable to appreciating the differences that make Guatemala and its people Guatemalan.”
At least, that was what I thought last week. This morning I woke to what to what William Fiennes described in his book The Snow Geese: A Story of Home as “…the pendulum of my impulses swinging back again, swinging back from what was new and undiscovered towards all that was known, named, remembered, understood” (105). It was as if I were reliving that time only a few weeks ago when my suitcases were not packed, but I had an idea of what should go in them. I had made a list of the essentials and had gone over the list twice already, paring away those things I really wouldn’t need—only to add them to my suitcase anyway, because, what if? I didn’t know what the weather would be like in the Guatemalan highlands, and what if it isn’t as cold as I was told it was going to be? What if it is colder? I sat on my bed and wondered what I was even doing moving to a foreign country for a year to teach kindergarten. The what if questions became more than just, will I need two jackets or one? They became demanding: What if this is the wrong choice? What if it was rash to just go like this, with four weeks to plan? My thoughts were scattered, like the clothes I had strewn around my room, just waiting to be gathered into some sort of order. Only, thoughts don’t gather like sedentary objects, and instead of trying to herd them, I had to remind myself of the reason I was going and anchor them to something tangible: there was a need and I was willing and able to go. As my dear friend Kate Spanos said, “Take the adventure that Aslan sends, right?”
That was over three weeks ago, yet I was still trying to answer those questions. The question that was bouncing around in my mind like a story without an ending this morning was: What am I even doing here? It was still dark outside, and chilly. The street dogs were fighting somewhere around a nearby corner. I thought fondly of my home’s long gravel drive, the cozy living room, the large green pastures full of cattle and horses—the routines and the comforts. A year seemed like an awfully long time away from such things. Yet I always had a restless desire to go. Yet again, here I was, gone, and longing for home. As J.M. Barrie noted in Peter Pan, it is just before dawn that the courage of men is at its lowest ebb. There was an undercurrent of restlessness that prompted the journey and the desire to move in the first place, and there was also the need for a resting place that paradoxically coincided within me. But the more I think on the subject of home, the less paradoxical the two seem.
Besides for being an encourager, Kate also wrote a profound senior thesis at the King’s College in New York over the topic of home in words more expressive than I can do justice. She introduced me to William Fiennes’ book The Snow Geese: A Story of Home, as it was part of the research for her thesis. She says in her paper:
Author William Fiennes describes his home and many other homes as well. As a grad student, Fiennes was diagnosed with an illness that required numerous surgeries and long hospital visits. The illness produced two reactions in Fiennes. First, it made him consider and long for the safety and familiarity of the house in which he had grown up. The old ironstone house with the rooks nesting in the roof and a little stream running close by gave stability of location to his life. He says of returning to it:
There was comfort even in the process of going back, seeing the lights of houses arranged in patterns as fixed as constellations, the road dipping or curving exactly as you remembered and expected, the shapes of signs, buildings, trees, and spires appearing on cue, each one its own fulfillment. We pulled up at the house, and my mother and father helped me to the front door, over the stone floor of the hall, up the stairs, the landing floorboards creaking correctly underfoot, into the dressing room, the curtains drawn, the rightness of things in their allotted places (179).
Fiennes considers steadiness and familiarity the essence of home. He calls it “a reprieve from the unpredictable” (204). He always describes his house in the language of consistency and comfortable, reliable, sameness.
My parents had moved into this house a few months before I was born: it had become the hub of my life, the fixed point. And now that everything had turned chaotic, turbulent, and fearsome, now that I had felt the ground shifting beneath my feet and could no longer trust my own body to carry me blithely from one day to the next, there was at least this solace of the familiar. The house was my refuge, my safe place. The illness and its treatments were strange and unpredictable; home was everything I knew and understood (8).
I imagine the patterns of my home as fixed constellations, too, full of the known and the familiar. The idea of home filled me with images of warm tea, long horseback rides, checking cows in the crisp fall air, the persimmon trees with their leaves falling off, warm sunshine. Mostly it is what’s comfortable and predictable.
It is that longing that has filled my heart. Teaching has been filled with new challenges, and I find that each morning I have to lay the day on an alter before God. My life has been uprooted to an unpredictable place where I have no familiarity. Yet—there is always a “yet”—as I take each day one at a time, focus on giving what I have to God and letting Him take care of the rest, and be my rest and my sustainer, my soul takes those small seeds of trust and faith and puts down shoots into the Guatemalan soil. As one of my favorite authors, Elisabeth Elliot said, “Today is mine. Tomorrow is none of my business. If I peer anxiously into the fog of the future, I will strain my spiritual eyes so that I will not see clearly what is required of me now.” Ten months is overwhelming. One day is doable.
Kate makes a poignant conclusion in her paper as she says:
I finally began to realize what I had suspected all along, that home was not a place I could still get to by train. I was longing for Home in God’s presence, where I could find rest and safety and comfort.
William Fiennes articulates this beautifully. He says, “It had occurred to me how often authors of scripture depict God as a house or shelter in which one might dwell, as if faith were itself a home, affording all the protection, comfort, steadiness, and sense of belonging that home implies—as if the need for God were homesickness in paraphrase” (106).
The need for God is homesickness in paraphrase. This is truth. This is where the exploration of home takes us. Follow the syllogism. The first premise is: everyone longs for home. The second premise is: home is the presence of God. So it follows logically that this deep longing of our hearts is longing for God and can only be satisfied in his presence. In Him and Him alone can people know completely the sense of belonging, steadiness and acceptance they so eagerly seek to recreate or suppress.
What do we do with homesickness then? We cannot always be trying to go back to a time or place that no longer exists. We must guard against escape, and refuse to believe that a sense of belonging is exclusive to specific places, people, or objects. We cannot simply suppress homesickness, or distract ourselves from it. Fiennes articulates the same dilemma and a solution:
I wanted to guard against such fantasies of escape. I couldn’t rush back to the old ironstone house whenever circumstances outside became inhospitable. Nowhere was my sense of belonging as complete or unambiguous as it was in my childhood home, but if I saw that sense of belonging as something exclusive to the ironstone house, then I would never really leave, never grow up, never look for my place in the world. Somehow I had to turn my nostalgia inside out, so that my love for the house, for the sense of belonging I experienced there, instilled not a constant desire to go back, but a desire to find that sense of belonging, that security and happiness, in some other place, with some other person, or in some other mode of being. The yearning had to be forward-looking. You had to be homesick for somewhere you had not yet seen, nostalgic for things that had not yet happened (205).
Fiennes is right. We must turn our nostalgia inside out and seek a place we have not yet seen, long for things that have not yet happened. This is not a call to abandon homes, though. Instead it is a call to mimic with our homes, not something in the past full of timeworn relics, but rather something in the future. The best homes on earth are simply reflections of heaven. They are resting points on the way to our final destination.
My pendulous heart’s desire for steadiness and restless urgings to leave are but the desires for a place that is not yet, but will be, home. Home is God’s presence. And for a time, home can be Guatemala, too.