While I do miss South Africa, a deeper pain has been gnawing at my heart. It is the pain of burying a loved one you’ve known for a long time. It is a hard feeling to explain when you leave a place, leave friends, leave family and then return – return to that place a different person. I am not the same person I was when I lived here 6 years ago and trying to balance that in the midst of family and friends who have not been through the process of change with me seems a difficult undertaking. It’s not just about how my loved ones view me – it’s deeper than that. It’s about coming back to a place that is very familiar and being foreign in it.
I am a foreigner in my own land. And I am ok with that. But who I was, and even the ghosts of my past visit and confront me here – especially in family interactions. (Why is it that we so often return to who we don’t want to be when we are with family? – it astounds me!)
So what is it that has changed? How can I put my finger on it – perhaps I hadn’t fully grasped the change within me until I returned. And there it is, a stirring, a fear, that she – the old me – hasn’t been completely buried. She is being tested in this familiar space and wants to re-emerge when confronted with the familiar. But this is the work, this is why I need to sit here and write this – she is no longer me.
I sat with my brother over coffee yesterday, we are strangers, yet family. And I am trying to get to know him, and he is trying to figure me out, and there I sat unable to voice in a way that doesn’t sound crazy and judgmental some of the changes I’ve undergone. He says to me, “You said you’d never return to the U.S. – what changed?” I try to explain why we’ve moved back but also the reasons why I didn’t think I’d return. In a few broad sweeping themes – because of the extreme polarities in politics, the religious fundamentalism, the inability to see the world outside the American bubble, and more than anything a deep anger at being so sheltered from the word, being a spoon fed lazy non-thinker and captain of my own life, and so shocked when I was outside of it to see what was really happening outside of that bubble.
But we, Jesse and I, realize that we have roots here in the U.S. – and we cannot escape those. Those broad sweeping themes are cosmetic and we can choose to live differently in America and choose to not live within the bubble. What runs deeper than the cosmetic frustrating issues are the relationships that remain here – that is why we returned. We cannot replace our families (as much as we may want to at different times) and those incredible friendships that have known us in our very unloveable places and still remain friends. We survived for 6 years in South Africa without family – relying on friends to be family (and sometimes relying too much on them). We learned how to be strong in ourselves, I stopped relying on others, church, and work to give me meaning.
In the movie City Slickers, Curly (the scary rough cowboy) asks Mitch (city slicker, Billy Crystal) if he knows what the meaning of life is. Then he puts his pointer finger up and says “It’s this”.
Mitch says, “Your finger?”
Curly responds, “One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean shit.”
“But, what is the ‘one thing’?”
And Curly says quite simply, “That’s what you have to figure out.”
I have realized that life really is meaningless when my very essence is built upon changing or saving. The one thing that matters – relationships (and the hardest part is being ok with the way they are.. not changing them). After working to be noticed in a church and building superficial relationships that would bring me “closer to God”, working to “save” street children, trying to change government policies, thinking I could change and develop a developing country, and building up a company in South Africa, it all fell a part in different ways – all of that work I invested so much of me into really was meaningless. So what remains when we try and try to change others, to make a difference, to build something that will eventually crumble – the only thing that remains is the relationships.
I am mourning the loss of all of those things that I invested my life in, all of those unhelpful thoughts and personas that I took on that have been, in many ways, meaningless. (I suppose not totally meaningless, they helped me get to this point – and yes, I did need to go through much of that to begin to see what the meaning of life is for me.)
The meaning of my life is not about getting to heaven, or doing things at church to be a good Christian, it is not about being a good girl and doing what others think I should do, and it’s not about changing people or structures (although that is still the hardest one that haunts me and overtakes me) – the meaning of my life really is about relationships.
A deep relationship with myself, being of utmost importance right now, and connection with others around me. And in understanding that, I am needing to shed expectations on the relationships in my life. I need to honor the relationship with me first – taking care of my needs, emotions, feelings, having moments with myself and not neglecting myself will allow me to be a better friend, sister, daughter, partner. I need to understand that while relationships are extremely important to me – it is not true of all of those in my life. I can choose to invest my time and life into those around me that enrich my life – that is of utmost importance. And those that don’t enrich my life – I can still work on relationship with but that is where the work within me really kicks in – not in changing the other but in changing me.
The irony of this mourning period is that those that I want to have a deeper relationship with (ie: family) are those that remind me of the old me. They call forth the me of 6 years ago – and make it hard to be in relationship, I feel I need to change them so that they can see me. But perhaps I need to keep working on changing me – so that I can see them. The balance of my life is in the loving and patient work of relationships – not abandoning and never returning – as I had thought I would do years ago. The only abandoning is of my old self and the continual changing, metamorphosis of me.
I am mourning old ways of thinking that try to re-emerge now that I am in familiar territory. I am mourning the old me. Farewell old friend – it is time you die away. Because only in letting go will I have the space to be more. Letting go allows me to be truly me as I pursue my meaningful life with myself and with others.