The Guest House

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Dear Keatsway,

I want you to encourage you as if it’s the most important task I’ve been given. You’ve been brave and adventurous, hopping continents and crossing borders, forging your career trajectory and becoming the most international person I know. All of which comes with a cost: leaving friends, meaningful work, and places you love behind. Of course, you are heartbroken and unsettled. You don’t know if you should prepare yourself for the next move or learn to love Amman. I don’t have easy answers.  I can only echo your broken heart.

Recently, I returned to America after living in England for sixteen months. In York, I fell in love with the city, the people, the lifestyle. I lived inside Roman walls, traded my car for a bicycle, bought my groceries at the year-round farmer’s market and grew to love the rain and the fog. I critiqued literature, translated foreign films, and learned how to read medieval maps. I went road tripping and hiking through the Yorkshire Moors, Scottish Highlands, the Lake District and Irish countryside. I traveled by train across Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and Spain. I did daring things I had never done before: karaoke, bouldering, sensual bachata dancing, swimming in Loch Ness, clubbing until 3 am. I also wrote a thesis, fell in love, and started attending an Anglican church. I could write a book about everything I did in England but there is not enough space here yet for that.

A few months ago I unpacked my bags in a new place: a hamlet in southern Washington state. I am grateful for the hospitality of my cousins, and the chance they have given me to start anew in the Pacific Northwest. Nevertheless, I struggle to be fully here at times, as I imagine you are in Amman. My 16 months in England reels through my head reminding me of all the brilliant adventures and loves I have left behind. I want to return permanently, but I don’t know yet if that’s in the cards or as you say, Inshallah, if God wills it.

I agree with you Keatsway, we must write about our inner journeys. The highs and the lows. The joy of a discovering a new place and the ache that accompanies having your heart split across continents. What do you love about Amman? What do you miss about Kampala? What can you take with you from place to place to create a home regardless of where you lay your head?

I think we can choose to stay in a place and call it home. Even if we have to leave we can build our lives around returning. I don’t know yet if Amman is your city, but I do know that the last city I lived in felt like a place I wanted to stay.  I don’t know what it will take for Amman to feel like home for you. And if you are not sure about Amman, be excited about what the city has to reveal you. What the city expects of you. Maybe you will discover answers to Rilke’s questions or perhaps you will learn to carry them with grace and poise.

All that is yet unknown. As you learn to hold uncertainty with open hands, I leave you with this poem by Rumi. It offers solace for the expat whose heart is still halfway in Kampala or York.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

— Jellaludin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks

So much love,

xoxo Brightstar

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Inshallah

Dear Brightstar,

It has been three years since I moved abroad. Though my letters havn’t been consistent the questions and aches I’ve felt over the past three years have been the same.

I moved to Geneva and then I left. I lived in Kampala and with work and an open heart I grew to love that change. Then I moved to Amman where I am living now.

The expat life has been exciting but it’s broken my heart a few two many times. I’ve fallen in love with people and built up families everywhere I’ve gone. I’ve transformed myself from a continental museum wandered to a streetwise motorbiker. Open and then hardened before transforming yet again, I have been formed by each experience

But the questions have not been answered. I only feel more jaded then I was at 24 moving abroad for the first time. I suppose through trials and adventures I’ve proven Rilke’s view that you tend to carry questions with you. Life doesn’t resolve itself no matter how many continents you live on.

I plan to keep in touch more if only to document my inward journey as I keep moving.

Jaded, confused, and heart sore.  Getting a bit sick of the expat lifestyle. But addicted to the promise of learning one more culture, one more city, one more new creation of self. Watch as I see whether this is the right city for me or just one more stop.

Always with love,

Keatsway

 

A Letter to my 25 year Old Self

Dear Brightstar,

Over coffee and some journal readings this morning, I realized that it’s only a few shorts months before my next birthday. I will be turning 26 in about 3 months.

Normally, I don’t really care about the years involved with birthdays—but something about people wishing me a happy quarter of a century this last time round resonated with me. I felt the age keenly with my 25th birthday.

I also spent my 25th birthday wishing I wasn’t alone.Honestly, it was my own choices that led me to be alone but I had this acute sense of being cheated. By life and by myself. I felt I would have more at 25.

The past year has passed more quickly then I imagine. I went from being completely alone on my 25th birthday to by spring I was at the happiest point in my life I could ever remember being. Then I threw caution to the wind and followed my dream to a completely new place, stripped bare of everything I had built the past few months.

Now that I am 3 months away from my next birthday, I feel I have achieved more this year then any beforehand. Yet, I am back to being alone.

This begs the question. While my 25th year has been a success, things are still difficult. What life lessons can I impart form this past year?

Looking forward to a little more wisdom this coming year,

Keatsway

 

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Chicago: 8 Months Ago

Dear Keatsway.

I meant to publish this post last November. Better late than never they say. Let’s hope they are right.

[8 months ago!] I flew to Chicago.

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I went to attend a conference on writing. Now not necessarily the kind you do for a living or on paper, but rather life writing. Of course I wanted to do both–learn how to write my life and how to write for a living. The conference was called Storyline.

When I booked a ticket to the conference and the city, Chicago, I was in one fluid motion combining my love of writing, travel, and story.  One of the joys of solo travel has always been the exhilaration of finding your way on your own terms. Being open to whatever the city will reveal to you about it’s character and the person you become as your new surroundings mold you. The city becomes then a coauthor of your experience. You impact it as much as it impacts you.

So as I landed in Chicago I reveled in the challenge of finding the right terminal to track down my CouchSurfing host, get the keys to my temporary living space for the next few days and find my way across this new and exciting city. If I could travel for a living and write about it, oh I would.

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The next morning, as I rocked back and forth on the train from the city to the countryside to the farthest reaches of Chicagoland, I looked out across open fields and endless possibility, feeling equally open and boundless myself.

Keatsway, there is nothing quite like seeing your favorite authors in person, especially if you’re a writer. It’s a heady rush of excitement and revelation. You finally hear them (Donald Miller, Shawna Niequist, etc.) speak out loud what you’ve been reading in their books for years. All their vulnerability, fears, heartaches and mistakes on their journey to a gradual success have twice as much gravity embodied by their presence and shared eye contact. Their presence adds more credibility to their stories while presenting you with a greater responsibility and accountability to live out your own.

This conference reinforced everything I’d been studying about stories for the past two years and reminded me why I was so drawn to them in the first place. Stories have an uncanny way of drawing the reader in by presenting high stakes and an unlikely protagonist. The harder the struggle, the greater the reward, mirroring life.

I’ve wondered, though, if one of the reasons we fail to acknowledge the brilliance of life is because we don’t want the responsibility inherent in the acknowledgment. We don’t want to be characters in a story because characters have to move and breathe and face conflict with courage. And if life isn’t remarkable, then we don’t have to do any of that; we can be unwilling victims rather than grateful participants.  -Donald Miller

And of course, in between conference sessions, I met my own tribe of writers and storytellers. We ate lunch and dinner together and stayed up late waiting for the last train back to Chicago. We shared backstories about how we ended up at Storyline and dreams for the future, scheming about how we could find the courage to make them a reality. 8 months later, we are still in touch.

Who knew the city where I have experienced the most delays would become the city that would inspire me the most. How’s that for irony?

XO,

Brightstar

Keeping Your Nerve Up

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Dear Brightstar,

As you well know I have just moved again. I’m living in an entirely new city, continent, and hemisphere. Kampala is by all standards a very different city then Geneva.

Yesterday I felt alive with the possibilities of living here. Tonight I feel as though I am heartbroken and alone.

My nerves are raw. I am exhausted. It’s an ever shifting equilibrium. I get both thrills from the thought of living in this new city and I despair I will never fill the ache of friends I miss.

There are definitive benefits to living abroad.

“Loving life is easy when you are abroad. Where no one knows you and you hold your life in your hands all alone, you are more master of yourself than at any other time.” ~ Hannah Arendt

But this is balanced with heartache.

“You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart will always be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.” – Unknown

In the meantime, you need to absorb new routines and overwhelming changes while mourning the life you choose to leave elsewhere. Especially, the people you choose to leave behind.

I know I choose this change just as I keep choosing a lifestyle of leaving places and people. But some nights its difficult to sleep with this choice.

But there seems to be nothing to it but to keep going.

The skills I will need to cultivate in order to live a life ‘persistently abroad‘—-by which I mean I keep choosing to move abroad despite my distress at starting over— will need to be: tenacity, patience with myself, courage, and good humor that feeds into a adventurous spirit.

I am here now and I will build a life in Kampala. It will never be the life I lead at home, or that I had in Geneva, but it will certainly be an adventure. With some patience and persistence, I think I can flourish here despite missing what I’ve built before.

All the best from my new home to be,

Keatsway

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Transience

Summerdandelions

Dear Keatsway,

I’m in transition. In fact I’ve been living out of suitcases and boxes for the past three months, and I still haven’t found a permanent residence. Everywhere I’ve lived since July has been short term, and in a few short days it will be October (the month that I promised my current flatmate I would definitely be gone). Yet I still don’t know when the magic moment will arrive where I find an apartment in the right location at the right price with just enough amenities and natural lighting that I can see myself calling it home for the next 12 months.

The temporality of my living situation has made it hard to find anything I need, let alone feel settled. A few months ago I was accepted into two graduate schools of choice in the United Kingdom. Weeks ago I received the news (staggered by a few fortnights) that my tuition would be fully covered by either American or Canadian student loans. One month ago I decided to defer (due to lack of cost of living funds). Today I have officially deferred at my second school of choice as well. It feels real now. The dream has been deferred and the reality of the day-to-day in my ordinary job without the comfort of my sanctuary or a place to truly make my own has been unsettling, upsetting, and startling (and dare I say it–depressing).

As a matter of what I deemed to be absolutely necessary at the time (to open up the possibility of studying abroad, I needed to end all rent contracts), I broke my lease in May.  The lease of my apartment that I had loved for three years to do something that I would love more than any possession. Near the end of July I moved out my furniture, although I had physically moved out at the beginning of the month. When an opportunity arouse to house sit in an upscale neighborhood and get paid, I couldn’t turn it down, especially when I needed everything I could get to put in my savings account for England.

A middle aged couple, professors by trade, did research in Berkeley, while I watered plants and watched over their house  (and their cat had it not been put down the day before they left). It was marvelous month that made the reality of my move unbelievable as I moved out of my 670 square feet apartment into a house easily four times the size situated on an acre of land. I stayed in a master bedroom in a king sized bed and I ate breakfast every morning looking out at three different types of roses. I picked fresh tomatoes and herbs from the garden and hosted several garden parties with friends on their back deck. When my father visited, he had a room to himself and dozens of areas to read the books he brought with him: the deck, the sunroom, the study, the dining room…

It was a dream come true while it lasted. Then the harsh reality that nothing was permanent reared its head, as I cleaned the house, made the beds, and took out the laundry and moved into the basement of a friend’s duplex, greeted by the dozens of boxes and furniture parts I had relocated there with my father weeks earlier. Instead of a Pottery Barn master Suite I would face a room littered with about 50 dead and alive bugs in what was clearly not intended to be a bedroom but instead basement storage space.  I was resourceful and called up a few friends to help me set up my temporary bedroom that week, after the room had been sprayed for bugs and thoroughly cleaned.

Now I am settled, my house-mate and I have reached a certain currency in our interactions that is neither too warm or too cold, friendly yet detached. This is not the way either one of us wants to live any longer than we have to.

Image by Carli Jeep from Unsplash

It’s nearing the point in my journey where I feel quite discouraged and disconnected. My dreams loom before me as unattainable and unreal. I can’t handle another year of isolation and displacement at work. Yet this is my reality. I long for the leisurely mornings on the balcony of my old apartment with my own mugs, and cutlery (there is simply not enough room for my dishes and my roommates, so I’ve been using hers since August) looking out onto the world from a place I felt that been molded and shaped by my personality. Now I awaken as a guest who has overstayed her welcome, in an apartment without a balcony and almost no natural lighting. There are four suitcases sprawled across the floor of my bedroom, and my 1970s curtains block windows where bugs creep in land on my blanket. I have visited three potential apartments, and I had two other apartments I meant to see rented out before I could view them. I have called more than twice as many places as have called me back and easily spent every day scrolling through every apartment website in town.

Keatsway, I write here with no answers or revelations, but with the hope that the next time I write it will be from the balcony of my new apartment.

Yours with best wishes (and prayers for patience and fortitude),

Brightstar

P.S. Keatsway maybe this is cheating but I just found this draft today (from September 27) and realized I’d never posted it.  As an update I am now in my 550 square feet apartment (since mid October) with a remodelled balcony that looks out on a hill. I watch the sunrise every morning above this hill as I make breakfast with my own cutlery  and drink hot lemon water out of my own mugs. I am grateful every day to be here in a room of my own.

Delayed

Dear Keatsway,

I sit in a black leather plushy chair of an oversized waiting room. I am not sure when I’ll be done but I imagine it will be soon. Until then I’ll pass the time writing you a letter.

I’m in a car dealership (for repairs, not car buying), but if I blink I could be back at my gate in O’Hare. Except here there is free coffee–arguably not as good as Starbucks–and there are cars instead of airplanes on display.

Three weeks ago, en route from Toronto, I sat on a leather stool next to a rain splattered window drinking Argo tea, pen and journal in hand, looking out at aircraft carriers. I wished the moment could last forever. Someday soon I hope to be waiting in an airport on my way to see you. I have not, however, always felt this way about delays or waiting itself.

I feel like I am always waiting –to find my next apartment, to pursue my dreams, for the workday to be over, for the weekend to come, and then for the next weekend. Waiting for the answers to my increasingly long list of questions about the meaning of life, and learning to be OK with the space in between. The space where I act out several possibilities to my question, or sit back and wonder what my next move should be.

Waiting in an airport has no clear starting or ending point. You just can’t predict when the delay will happen and you have to be prepared to change plans and be flexible. To remain undeterred by a detour and not waste energy being angry or frustrated. To become creative and spontaneous with your time and your new plan of action.

After a year of plane delays I have finally discovered the secret to not becoming discouraged by them–accepting them completely, and finding a pleasant way to wait it out. Sometimes it’s as simple as staying nourished with healthy food, finding a quiet place to rest, discovering a new perspective, and seizing the opportunity to work on cherished pastimes–like reading or writing. Always ready to pick up everything at a moment’s notice when the plane finally does depart, and practicing patience and fortitude when it doesn’t.

As I put my plans of graduate studies, and living abroad on hold, I am trying to apply the same lesson I learned here. To decide not to waste energy on discouragement or resisting reality. Instead accept it as a necessary part of the process, embody grace and peace, and be inventive and endlessly flexible.

Maybe this delay is reminding me that it’s the journey and not the destination that counts? Keatsway, how do you handle delays?

Yours with best wishes,

Brightstar