On Leaving

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On Leaving

Open road stretches out before me, cornfields and forests swirl into blurry greens and yellows. The windows are down and my hair tickles my nose, the sun warms my thighs and my elbow is getting sunburned but I don’t mind, I’ll peel and the dried skin will remind of me this day, this place, this slippery moment. The radio plays U2, Beautiful Day, and I’m singing loud.

What does leaving feel like?

on leaving1

It feels like that drive down the freeway. Like everything is right and the world is beautiful and maybe I’m wrong, maybe nothing is right because why does it hurt? I’m heading somewhere I want to go and leaving somewhere I want to stay and I want to be in both places and so I try to force the in between to linger. Tears stream down and blow off my cheeks, stolen by wind.

My toenails were hennaed black when we evacuated from Somalia and I remember watching the black grow out with my nail. When I clipped the last sliver of nail with black swath across the narrow tip. When my body released that last vestige, no longer stamped with a reminder of where I had been. I remember it feeling like, with that one snip, we were evacuating all over again, like something had been irrevocably removed.

Does anyone else see green grass and feel dizzy? The green blades like sea snakes swaying in the summer breezes. Does anyone else notice the way leaves filter sunlight and cast glittery shadows, orbs of golden light reflected off rivers in diamonds? Is there a way to hold it? To paint it on my toenails so I can carry it until I am ready to let go?

During leaving days every interaction is intensified, every color made more brilliant. Do you know I’m going back to Africa, to Djibouti, on Thursday? I want to say to the cashier, the postman, the hair stylist. Do you know this is my last box of strawberries, my last jog in shorts, my last swim in fresh water, my last heart-bearing conversation with you, dear friend? Do you know how exhausting it is to live so many lasts, again? And then next week to be living so many firsts, again? To be so heavily aware of the preciousness in each moment, each bite, each conversation, each sunburn?

I try to capture the feeling and words refuse to be harnessed. It is a welling up, a hollowing out, a summoning forth, and a tamping down. There is grief and loss and joy and gain. Because there is both leaving and arriving and in the middle is the purgatory airplane ride during which I will pass from one world to the next.

Is it too dramatic to say leaving feels like death? If you knew which day you were going to die…? I do. I know that on this particular day I will leave and I won’t be back for a couple of years and in those passing years, things and people change. And every second lived during the leaving days is weighted down with the knowledge that I can’t have this back. Maybe the practice of leaving is like a burial, like laying to rest. Like placing a headstone over the meaningful moments, places, people. Marking them, planting seeds in them, trusting that flowers will grow.

Is it too dramatic to say arriving feels like rebirth? If you could reinvent yourself…? I can. I shed the Minnesota and put on the Djibouti and there is an invigorating freshness, a sense of opportunity and anticipation.

We are leaving (we already left). We have left many times in the past and have arrived just as many times. Though it might seem I should be used to this, adjusted to the countdown and the onslaught of sensory details, both in leaving and in arriving, I’m not. I don’t want to be.

I look at the cornfields and think, I love cornfields and why can’t I stay here? But I’m afraid that if I stayed I might not love cornfields the same way anymore. I wouldn’t love them in a leaving way. If I stayed I wouldn’t see the ocean and wouldn’t think I love the ocean, wouldn’t love the ocean in a leaving way.

A tug-of-war reigns and it is both exhausting and life-affirming. It intensifies color and taste and laughter and sadness.

This is what leaving feels like.

This is what arriving feels like.

By |August 28th, 2014|Categories: Expat Thoughts|Tags: , , , |35 Comments


  1. Sherri August 29, 2014 at 4:24 am - Reply

    Oh this summer in Indiana, I kept thinking. I love cornfields! I love the order to them. I love the vibrant green. I love corn! Thank you again for putting into words what I feel!

  2. Ren August 29, 2014 at 6:32 am - Reply

    In tears as I think about all that I’m missing back home in MN. But smiling as I think about all that I’m experiencing here in my new home halfway across the world.
    Thank you for so perfectly putting the emotions into words.

  3. Colleen Mitchell August 29, 2014 at 12:45 pm - Reply

    Oh. So perfectly beautiful and painful. Just like the leaving. My husband just asked the other day if I was ready to consider a more extended time the States next year. I told him no, not today. My heart cannot process all the goodbyes today. Today I want to stay and never leave. Anywhere. Ever. But, of course, that’s not an option. Praying for you in the leaving moments, friend.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones August 29, 2014 at 1:55 pm - Reply

      So hard, right? You want to be somewhere but you don’t want to leave the other somewhere.

  4. Charlene Baldwin August 29, 2014 at 1:04 pm - Reply

    Wonderful! You’ve caught the words, relished the depths of the agony/ecstacy of transitions that load our lives with meaning. To a missional-minded generation this is the “true riches.” You go, girl!

  5. The Cowgirl August 29, 2014 at 1:25 pm - Reply


  6. Cristina M August 29, 2014 at 1:56 pm - Reply

    Thank you for communicating exactly how I feel. No-one really understands why on the day of our return flight I need to walk around the neighborhood, do some shopping and have a decent coffee. Its my way of debriefing a life that I once had. Hoping that your arrival is full of wonderful hello’s!

  7. Carrie August 29, 2014 at 2:13 pm - Reply

    Simply a beautiful description of this overlapping place–how can it be that we can feel both joy & pain in the same moment? I treasure your observation of life lived in this space. Thank you Rachel.

    I lovingly offer this poem written yesterday, as I navigate the space in between leaving a dream behind and beginning another– http://worldpulse.com/node/92771

    Many blessings,

  8. fern August 29, 2014 at 2:41 pm - Reply

    Every year. 8 mos there, 4 mos here. I am in the last month trying to impress on my memory the coffee with a friend, the grandchild earnestly telling me why and how we should have a 2 night sleepover instead of just one, the freedom of getting into our car and driving to the mountains with my daughter at a moment’s notice. I’m tired. We don’t have the plane ride, we have the purgatory 36 hour drive….and at the end, if we hit it just right, we may have tacos and I, a hug from Cristina waiting for me.
    Thanks for your blog 🙂

  9. Richelle Wright August 29, 2014 at 2:52 pm - Reply

    Every heartbreaking goodbye means an exhilarating hello – but it never feels like one balancing the other. It is more like a roller coaster ride that terrifies and thrills all at the same time – except that ride only lasts a few seconds and those transition rides last much longer.

    If nothing, I’m learning to live the moment, anticipate the possibility for the future and grieve the loss of what is or what will be soon behind – all at the same time.

    And how in the world can to confine all of that to words?

    I don’t know – you came awfully close! Beautiful, Rachel. May God grant you safe and uneventful travels and a seamless transition as you leave home to head home…

  10. Daniel Maurer August 29, 2014 at 4:14 pm - Reply

    Reading your words, I wonder in what way farewells are central to the human condition. It’s more than reverie, certainly not nostalgia; parting “is such sweet sorrow,” because the time you savored meant something to you. Your time is also like brown, dry leaves in late October—they fall from tree, and the wind carries them off. Time (and our very existence, really) is ephemeral. Perhaps that’s why it’s so precious.

    I have to wonder what Abraham and Sarah felt like with every move they made, trusting that the next place would offer something more than tent-living. The tug of war you mentioned certainly must have been Sarah must have felt: “Oh, really? We’re moving? Again!?” I think you’re right, leaving DOES feel like death. With the hope that we will one day return to our final home, I think all our moving around is just practice for where we are eventually headed. Maybe we can join Sarah in her laughter, that, after all our wanderings, we too will know that there is hope of a final home, even when all the evidence is to the contrary.

    Best to you and Tom and your family.


  11. Tamara August 29, 2014 at 5:21 pm - Reply

    Yes. I feel that every time I go back to Ethiopia. One version of me, one half of me dies. The other half is reborn…

  12. debra August 29, 2014 at 6:16 pm - Reply

    This is happpening to me, right now, tonight. Heading to Papua New Guinea after two months of slumber parties/swimming with grandkids, planning/watching a son get married, and having one last dinner with friends. One foot here, one there and I don’t know if I should laugh or cry. Thank you for feeling what I feel and putting words to the feelings.

  13. Shelly August 29, 2014 at 6:44 pm - Reply

    I’ve often felt this way even on short term trips…both leaving my home country and my second home. Thank you. Mwende bwino. (Travel well)

  14. Kami August 29, 2014 at 7:16 pm - Reply

    I too have henna on my fingernail, that I’m not wanting to wear off. Loved your words as we just returned home and it’s so hard to explain what it is you love about a place like India. So many can’t possibly understand, when i read these posts I don’t feel so alone.

  15. Sarah August 29, 2014 at 10:26 pm - Reply

    I loved the post so beautifully capturing feeling which is so hard to do in this kind of life. I also LOVE all the comments because I agree with the person who commented “I don’t feel so alone” someone understands. It is a little easier with this knowledge. I am not crazy 😉

  16. Kristin Tabb August 29, 2014 at 10:57 pm - Reply

    So well-articulated! Thank you for this. This resonates with me as a military kid who grew up on both coasts and then planted in the Midwest.

  17. Alicia H August 30, 2014 at 8:42 am - Reply

    I loved all of it but especially these lines, “It is a welling up, a hollowing out, a summoning forth, and a tamping down. There is grief and loss and joy and gain.” So, so true. Thank you for putting my very similar feelings into words.

  18. […] You’ll want to finish reading the rest of this post at this link. […]

  19. karen August 30, 2014 at 12:46 pm - Reply

    It does feel like death, like the feeling of an actual break within one’s heart… and this, exactly: “I’m heading somewhere I want to go and leaving somewhere I want to stay and I want to be in both places and so I try to force the in between to linger.”

  20. Laura August 30, 2014 at 1:30 pm - Reply

    You express my feelings well. I just left Minnesota this week to return to my mission in Africa. So good to be “home” where I grew up, but so good to be “home” in my small village in Africa. The leaving is tough on both sides. It is always a tug-of-war. Thank you.

  21. Allison Jane Smith August 30, 2014 at 5:28 pm - Reply

    Beautifully, beautifully written. You’ve captured that feeling of being torn between places so well.

    I’m en route back to Cambodia after spending a month in my native Canada, and was struck by how deeply happy I was to be in Canada and how deeply sad I was to be away from Cambodia- these contradictory emotions at the same time. To be so happy, and so sad. To feel that leaving is a death, and also a rebirth.

    I’ve discussed the idea of wholeness with other friends who live away from their home countries- can you feel completely, totally whole when wherever you go, there are pieces of yourself missing, left in another place? I’m not sure, but that may just be part of the human experience, not ever quite feeling 100% satisfied.

    • Marla Taviano August 30, 2014 at 10:17 pm - Reply

      Our fam is moving to Cambodia in January. Was going to ask you if you’re in Phnom Penh but hopped over to your blog and saw you’re in Battambang. Gonna go stalk you for a bit if that’s okay. 🙂

  22. Marla Taviano August 30, 2014 at 10:15 pm - Reply

    Thank you so much for this. Our family is moving to Cambodia in January. We’ve wanted this for so long, and now that it’s happening? It sometimes feels so hard. We’ll be leaving many Somali & Eritrean refugee friends (we live in an apartment complex in Ohio that’s 75% East African) and our other friends and family, and yeah, you know.

    I LOVE this: “I look at the cornfields and think, I love cornfields and why can’t I stay here? But I’m afraid that if I stayed I might not love cornfields the same way anymore. I wouldn’t love them in a leaving way.”

    Thank you.

  23. Lori September 2, 2014 at 12:11 am - Reply

    The lasts, again, and the firsts, again… well put. I’m remembering our most recent Solomon Islands-Iowa transition and crying. Thank you.

  24. Barbara September 2, 2014 at 4:53 am - Reply

    Thank you for beautifully expressing a feeling so familiar to me. I especially love the paragraph “During leaving days… To be so heavily aware…”
    I lived that paragraph many times during my years as a missionary kid who felt split between boarding school/home, between host/ passport countries.

    Ruth Van Reken calls it ‘living in the paradox,’ and says “Remember, you don’t have to reject either the past or the present to preserve the other.” http://www.expatica.com/be/employment/employment_information/helping-tcks-avoid-the-pitfalls-of-global-living-27460.html

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  26. Ann Ehrhardt September 2, 2014 at 7:12 pm - Reply

    Wow! You get it! I’m living the reintegration of coming home to the states after being an expat for four+ years. We have just received our household goods after camping in an empty house for 8 weeks and I am so thankful and grateful after filling my new home in the Pacific Northwest with familiar things again. My comfort blankets in a way, I guess I am more attached to material things than I had thought. I am content though. No need for 24 hour shopping centers and all the stuff marts that surround me. I feels strange to know that I can go to the market on a Sunday and or any day for that matter at any hour and “get stuff”. I nearly vomited when I walked into a Walmart the first week back in country. I had a headache, felt anxious and had to leave the store due to the overwhelming sensory overload. Our entire family felt a mild depression for weeks after returning because we just didn’t fit in and had no one to connect with that would understand. I felt a little guilty talking about where we had come from and sharing some of the experiences that we had because we had been to so many places and seen things that people usually see on the travel channel or in magazines. It is an isolating feeling and one that share with my husband and children. My kids are returning to U.S. public schools tomorrow and nervous as hell about sticking out and not blending in. Sure, they look like your average American teenagers, but on the inside they’re culturally different, much like foreign exchange students I imagine. Thanks for sharing your blog with us. I truly enjoy it!!

    • Rachel Pieh Jones September 3, 2014 at 2:55 am - Reply

      Oh Ann, so many thoughts filled my mind as I read this comment. I so empathize with your feelings at the store, for one! A couple years ago my kids spent a year in the Mpls public school system. I actually have an essay coming out at Babble in the next week or two about Hidden Immigrants in school and helping them navigate – kids who look alike but don’t think alike. I learned so much that year about how to help our kids. I’ll link to the essay on the blog, maybe it will help, maybe it will be things you’ve already thought about. It wasn’t necessarily easy, but the kids ended up having a great year overall. I completely understand them being nervous! I was nervous for my kids’ first day. Will be thinking of your family.

  27. Holly Newman September 4, 2014 at 6:07 am - Reply

    This made me think of the sharp feeling I always had of leaving one universe and entering another one. It was surreal while in one to remember and believe that the other one was co-existing in time and space. That is how separate and different they seemed. But this was in the 80’s, before technology afforded us the immediacy of communication that is true today. Occasionally the universes would collide, persons from one would visit the other; this was quite an adjustment. But also a comfort, to have someone in my past (and future) world understand and experience my present world.

  28. Anita September 9, 2014 at 8:19 pm - Reply

    This is beautiful.

    I’ve had a similar thought about cornfields: if I hadn’t gone I wouldn’t love cornfields the same way… or love so many other things about this place.

  29. Melissa November 14, 2014 at 3:30 pm - Reply

    It is not too dramatic, and it is not unnecessary. It doesn’t matter that it is your choice to go, or that you love it ‘there’. It doesn’t matter how strongly you feel called, or how much love you have for ‘them’. It’s hard. And yes, it is like death. There’s a grieving process and a great deal of pain and joy, meshed into something that cannot be explained. It’s an alone place to be, caught between two worlds. Identity questioned from both ends and in the middle. May it be a peaceful transition, and may our Father fill your heart with love, peace, and courage. May your healing be swift and your joy full.
    -From one who’s been here before
    –Grace and Peace.

  30. […] assignments. Some for a short furlough, some permanently. Rachel Pieh Jones describes so well what it feels like for them. Her article will help you to sympathize and to pray intelligently for those you know who […]

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