Longing. Webster’s defines it as “a strong persistent yearning or desire, especially one that cannot be fulfilled.” As an MK, I would define it as “the warm taste of the past lingering on my tongue, the sweet sounds of yester-place ringing in my ear, the soft homeness of a lost universe whispering in my heart.”
I returned to Germany three weeks ago for the worst of reasons—to speak at the memorial service for my dear friend, Mari Ellen. I landed in Basel, as I have countless times before, folded into my tiny stick-shift rental car and drove the small, winding roads from Switzerland to Black Forest Academy in homing-pigeon mode, not once wondering where to turn but slammed at every familiar site by pangs of intimate belonging. (Interesting that “longing” is part of “belonging.”)
The French expression “I don’t know which foot to dance on” came painfully alive for me on the day of the memorial service, as I walked slowly into the school’s auditorium where I had directed countless concerts and plays… One “foot” wanted to dance. The other wished it could drag itself back out of the building, away from the imminent, forever goodbye. The window-wall on my right was lined with pictures of my too-soon-departed friend, but the spaces around me rang with the remembered energy and life of the hundreds of students who were the focus of my work for all my adult years. Longings—too many to list—assailed me.
I’m not sure there is another people group on earth that relates as intimately to longing as the Third Culture community does. It is anchored to our DNA and breathes in our cells. Those places we’ve loved, the languages we’ve tasted, the remembered agony of imposed goodbyes and mandated transitions. The savors, smells, sounds, textures and lifestyles of our past hum like static in the background of our present. Some of us try to silence or ignore the melancholy longings. Some of us let them drain the color out of the new life we’ve entered. I’d venture to say that we all, to some degree, carry the blessing and burden of our memories as we dwell between past and future, trying to discern which foot to dance on.
Part of me wants to suggest that it’s okay to dampen the ardor of our longing, that it’s okay to make believe those otheryears never happened. I’d be lying, of course, for the sake of practicality. How convenient it would be to see life through a single-universe lens. But neither the Christian life nor the third-culture life are predicated on convenience. Their greatest rewards are steeped in careful measure, perspective and precarious balance.
Part of me wants to suggest that it’s okay to dwell in the familiar past, to weigh today down with so much of yesterday’s baggage that we’re able to bring our old life into the new and lose little in transition. Except for the present. We lose the promise and abundance of “present” by trying to transpose the past into today.
My time in Germany brought longing into nearly physical focus. As sure as I am of the “rightness” of my new ministry here in the States, I was intensely reminded of my marrow-deep attachment to that place, those students and that life. Grief further confused my thinking. There were moments when I was viscerally certain that I’d made the wrong decision two years ago and that my days here would never matter as much as they had in that context. An evening with French friends revived my connection with the culture in which I was born and raised. Oh, the longing for staccato conversations over three-hour meals and that choleric sense-of-humor we Americans can’t emulate.
The conclusion I reached as my plane rose over the patchwork of Alsatian fields on a sunny Monday morning and dragged its shadow over the sleeping village of Blotzheim didn’t temper the yearning growing like feedback in my mind. But it gave it meaning. I cannot—I will not—stamp out the longing that connects me to the influences that shaped me. Losing them would mean losing the rich heritage of my cross-cultural upbringing. It would one-dimensionalize me…like removing shadow from a painting. But I won’t allow it to disconnect me from the new life I’m engaged in either. I can permit the memories to surface without giving them license to deprive the present of its potential and purpose.
So I commit to participate in each today with determination and zeal that balance the longings of Third-Culture-dom. I acknowledge that it’s okay for me to miss the people and places of my past when those memories gurgle to the surface. It’s okay for me to savor them again for a moment, then store them—unsealed and still breathing—in a treasured mental space. But the God who cares for us along every step of our journeys wouldn’t want me to be moving forward while still bound to the past. He’d want me facing front, bold and trusting, soothed by previous homeness and grateful for that gift. Revisiting the past is good and healthy. Dwelling in it is a dangerous proposal. So I face resolutely forward, eager to discover what today, tomorrow and the day after will hold. I dance on both feet—buoyed by all I’ve known and lost and determined to discover whatever treasure lies ahead.
I think—I know—Mari Ellen would approve.