Last December, I found myself sitting on the edge of my bed, looking around at all the things in my apartment that represented a life I had spent a year building with such intention and thoughtfulness, knowing it was time to allow it to be dismantled.
I observed the large glass windows that offered me broad views of the tree-filled hills, scattered with various construction projects representing signs of promise and development. I appreciated the orange tile on my terrace that had been the perfect landing spot for my growing yoga practice. I noticed my portable diffuser, which had helped me stay connected to my sensuous side through its plumes of lemon, juniper, and lavender.
I cherished the assembled craft kit of markers and sticky notes to help me honor my little girl’s desire to immerse herself in color of all kinds. I ran my hand over my weighted blanket, which calmed my anxious soul in moments of discomfort, inevitable in a foreign land. I admired my wooden giraffe statue, reminding me of the novelty of adventures I had sought out in the rolling countryside. It had been a full year since I arrived in the country of Rwanda to fulfill a dream of living and working abroad, and it seemed it was coming to an abrupt close.
As I surveyed my things, deciding what to pack and what to leave behind, I felt a strong sense of surrender. I was being asked to let go in a variety of ways, and that has never been something I have done with much ease or grace. I had invested in a romantic relationship that had sweet memories of take-out Indian food, wandering through the exotic and life-filled Savannah, surprise visits on lazy weekend afternoons, and slow dances to soft ballads. But also low lows of mixed messages, unhealed trauma triggers, and life complications.
I was letting go of a community of colleagues who had embraced me with warmth and enthusiasm in a new culture, despite challenges of staying connected due to COVID-19 and my failure to make much progress in acquiring the local language. I was letting go of my “expat” identity that I had come to embrace with such joy and delight, where new discoveries are always just around the corner. And not to mention the beautiful geography and soothing temperatures of Rwanda, where the hills are plentiful, the plant life is abundant, and the sunshine is a constant companion.
I had also turned 40 in the month prior to my departure, so there was also a sense that I was leaving behind the frivolity and freedom that had come along with my youth. Lastly, I was letting go of my original plan to travel around the continent of Africa for two months, due to the Omnicron variants mischievous ways.
As I made my transit back to the United States in the midst of the Christmas travel hustle, I was not quite sure what I was coming home to. The comfort and familiarity of my family of origin, no doubt. The ease of access to friends from whom I had been separated by seven different time zones, certainly. But also, the multiplicity of options available at grocery stores, a blessing and a curse. The palpable political tensions that had only been fueled further by Covid, yikes. A culture that values achievement and attainment over presence and connection, uggghhh. Constant temptations to live a life of distraction, where consistent messages of scarcity are delivered through screens and signs in order to drive reckless consumer behavior, no, thanks.
If you can’t tell, my disenchantment with the American dream was only fueled further by the distance I was able to maintain from my culture of origin for an extended period of time.
In the months upon my return, I struggled to find my way forward. I felt like I was stuck between worlds, not prepared to return to my prior life but also not prepared to embrace the life that was ahead of me. I had set a boundary of no contact with my prior love interest but had failed to disengage on social media, so I still was getting “hits” of attention while also trying to step back into the daunting waters of dating through the apps. I was taking a “professional pause,” while also staying connected to colleagues from Rwanda, not sure if my work there felt “complete.”
I was starting to look at houses in Kentucky, where I had not lived since I was 18 years old, with a sense it was finally time to put down some roots. Yet, the bare winter landscape and the regular reminders that my non-traditional life decisions had created a distance that felt near impossible to bridge between me and the sweet community that raised me fed me with resistance. I felt trapped in limbo and filled with shame that I was not navigating the transition with more vision, joy, and excitement about my future. The ego voice was near shouting, “Come on, Elizabeth, move on!” but somewhere else inside me was asking me to move at a different pace.
Those liminal spaces of life can be so full of discomfort, anxiety, doubt, and fear, even when we have experienced them before and seen what magic can emerge on the other side. I was being encouraged by a community of women I was affiliated with to lean on visualizations to infuse myself with hope and the feelings that you want to attract.
But somehow, that advice felt not honoring of what this season of life was truly calling me to embrace, and I sensed my path forward was once again one of surrender and acceptance. I was affirmed as I was reading Wild Ideas: Creativity from the Inside Out about the important role chaos and destruction play in the creative process. Author Cathy Wild shares, “Once we have entered the engulfing whirl of chaos, we no longer have control. At such disquieting times, we may forget the vital role chaos plays in stimulating leaps of insight.”
I am continually reminded that if we are committed to living creative and generative lives, we are bound to have seasons of feeling like our lives are falling apart—and more regularly than we probably care for. While I am still in the middle of the swirl, between my own internal process and processing with trusted confidants, there are a few insights that have emerged for me in recent months.
Beware of binary thinking
Often, when we are in a passage from one phase to the next, it can be so easy to default to what we know, or what we have experienced as possible. In my efforts to figure out what is next, I realized I had created two options, which represented parts of myself that felt like they were at war with one another. Rwanda came to represent the parts of myself that want to be free, challenged, culturally enriched, and in a satisfactory (tropical) climate. Kentucky came to represent the parts of myself that want to be grounded, comforted, connected, and familial.
When I pitted these desires against each other, I felt defeated and a sense of impossibility. With some time and encouragement, I was able to shift to more expansive thinking when I put the qualities I liked about both places on a piece of paper and let go of needing to know the exact place or life configuration where I might feel all those things—but allow myself to believe that a blend is possible.
After this, I decided to check out a few additional spots that I believed had potential to fulfill some of these criteria, beyond the locations I had considered, including Asheville, North Carolina, and country of Colombia. A friend of mine also offered me words of wisdom that sometimes when we are going through intense seasons of change, it is okay to throw our ego a bone. I didn’t have to shame myself for the parts of me that were still finding ways to stay connected to my last chapter and not demand the process of transition go any faster than it could naturally go.
Don’t put joy and play on hold
In seasons of uncertainty, it can feel easy to believe that we are in a holding pattern until the clarity comes. We often default to muscling our way through or getting stuck in a state of paralysis, with little levity and limited moments of peace. As I struggled through the pervasive darkness and chilling winds of the winter months, I decided I could look for ways to reach for joy and pleasure, even in the midst of my confusion: small delights of ginger-turmeric tea, a hot bath, cooking a fragrant meal, or a trip to wander the aisles of Whole Foods took on new meaning.
As spring emerged, I decided to travel to Colombia to learn about the creative forces that flourished after 50 years of conflict and violence. The colorful murals, lush landscapes, and complex history filled my mind with wonder and allowed my mind to take a break from “figuring it all out.”
I continued to find that prioritizing joy, play, and curiosity, and letting my inspiration for action come from that place, rather than waiting to reward myself with these things until after the questions were resolved, was a path of much more ease. It allowed me to invite answers rather than demand answers to the open-ended questions that could be seen as a beautiful mystery instead of a heavy plague.
When I follow my bliss, I come to feel it communicates a strong message to my higher power that I trust as a valued co-conspirator and give him or her valuable information about what to include in the solutions he or she will be sending to me as I moved toward and appreciate what lights me up.
Resist the urge to isolate
As I navigated the struggle of letting go of what was, the intimidation of figuring out what was next and the temptation to play the game of comparison with my peers to guide my decisions, the swirl in my head and heart seemed far too much to manage at times. I was in the process of rebooting in so many areas of life: home, work, romance, and community. If I was overwhelmed, I imagined anyone else who would be invited into my web of uncertainty might also find themselves walking away a bit disoriented.
Additionally, I was carrying a lot of shame that I felt so unhinged by the transition, and I feared letting anyone see me in such a state of disarray. And yet, somehow, I still found myself reaching for friendships that brought comfort, where I allowed myself to be seen, held, and accepted for where I was in the process.
I willed myself to set up a few networking conversations, where I acknowledged that I was exploring my way forward and not totally clear on what was next and hoped to learn from their experience or perspectives on certain shared topics of interest. With each of these steps, my ego quieted down a bit more, as it was met with curiosity and compassion, rather than judgement and disdain. I tried to pay attention to what interactions resonated for me and what didn’t, kind of like a game of “hot or cold,” and use that as information to guide me forward.
Currently, I am five months into this transitional time and back in Rwanda for a visit to support a conference coordinated by a colleague but also to see this place from a different vantage point.
In some ways, I still have more questions than answers. But I feel grateful for the shifts I feel have happened, from being narrowly focused on the “problem” to having a more open stance available for “solutions.” I have loosely defined the things I am seeking and let go of the packaging of what it needs to look like. And I have decided that there are ways I can feel joy, support, and peace in the middle of the fog.
Whether you are a former expat who can relate to the disorientation of returning to your home country or someone who is also experiencing a season of creative destruction/reinvention and trying to navigate your way forward with ease, I hope you can find a little comfort and hope from my experience.