I love email and letter correspondences because they are whimsical, genuine, and impossible. You both try to share as much as you can but you just can’t capture the truest moments, the fleeting feelings that disappear as quickly as they happened. They’re beautiful but lackluster, like pressed flowers.
I keep up a few correspondences here and for whatever reason, I revisited one that I wrote last month. I excitedly told one of my dearest friends about life in the Philippines after nine months. It was filled with hilariously confident sentiments like how sure I was about being there, and how much I loved my work, and how my personal life was a rollercoaster but I was certain it would all pass.
Now on the other side of this past month, I look back fondly on that sweet summer child who wrote that email on such a high of purpose and silver linings. I bet her Instagram was cute and inspirational. That nine-month Maggie seems like a fresh-faced ingenue, I thought bitterly like some old divorcé taking a swig at some hole-in-the-wall bar.
But this is just the reality of life when you move abroad for a year ((well, now more than a year)). There’s no predictability or constants or any kind of measure of certainty. And if there are constants, you won’t consistently feel the same about them. People who lived it may try to tell you but when you cope well, you just don’t believe it. Of course you can do it all, you insist. You’re doing so well!
I would like to tell you what it’s like to not do well.
It’s looking down at your phone and cringing as you see all the text alerts and missed messages and emails. Each one is a problem waiting to be solved or friendships that need investing or obligations to negate or things that you really want to do but have no energy left to do. Each inbox a little garbage fire you can’t look away from that tears you apart. Do you keep doing things here in Manila? More events, celebrations, coffee dates, assignments? Or do you try as hard as you can to keep contact with home, with your beloved friends, family members, and loved ones?
It looks like coming home from work and wanting to crash on your bed but you can’t because it’s covered in saw dust. It’s covered in saw dust because there were contractors in your apartment for the last two weeks installing a door to your bedroom. Your bedroom that was supposed to have been provided a door before you had moved in…ten months ago. It wasn’t that bad when you were able to cope, but now you’re realizing just how much you’ve been ripped off so you insist the doors need to go in. But it’s been two weeks and you can’t sleep in your own bed and there’s no end in sight. And this is after you found out that the toilet that has never worked properly for nine months was due to a paintbrush that had been stuck in it from before you moved in. And you want to forget it all, and block it all out, but you can’t….because there’s no door to close.
It looks like inexplicable exhaustion. Why are you so, so tired all the time? Why are you weepy in the back of a taxi, and then later at coffee, and then later at church? Why don’t you want to do your work where you’re looking at facts after facts about Online Sexual Exploitation of Children and realize that evil has become somehow workaday? You want to pour into your work so that your purpose here makes it all worth it but you don’t want to because the work is heavy and can feel impossible.
Why can’t you stop thinking about your family? Will your littlest siblings still feel close to you? If they can’t now, will you ever be close to them? Does your high school sister know that she can call you for anything because you know how hard it is to be that age, but oh yeah, she can only call you at 7 in the morning or 7 at night? How do you get in touch with the brother who doesn’t have Wifi and is off the grid? How do you anything besides send .gifs and pray for them because you can’t be there in the way you want?
Why were all these things so easy when you moved here and now feel impossible?
It looks like thinking all these thoughts constantly, each one urgent and burning. Each little fire is all-consuming and when you’re so close to them, they don’t look so little.
And in the height, when it’s all too much and you don’t know where to even look next, the fires will dwindle. Some will even be doused. You find that you can breathe again, or at least, aren’t publicly crying at the bubble tea place. Someone reaches out to you from home with a comforting message. Your co-worker offers you a place to stay. Your boss makes sure you’re getting enough rest.
The community of fervent believers you’ve been hanging out with at their worship events, that you thought were just all really great people, are now suddenly your family. You find out that you’ve been a part of a network of support and prayer the whole time. You find out that you’ve never been alone and people will ask to share your burdens.
It looks like God comforting you through the gift of a place to stay. It looks like truth being poured and declared over you in the foyer of a party you weren’t even sure you’d be at. It looks like God telling you over and over again that you’re where you’re supposed to be. Not just in the Philippines, but in His arms, my only home.
It’s not just visa run weekends away or amazing, unbelievable moments at work. It’s not just the spiritual highs. But’s it’s not all the lows either. And it’s not all the funny stories that I’m banking comes out of this.
It’s God’s love. Over and over and over again. Perfect and perfectly timed.
You find out that the fires are once again small, and you invite them, even more of them. Because it means you’re doing something right and good.