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.