I was a total mess when I got home. Ok. I’m still a total mess, just in different ways. But when I returned to the United States from South Sudan, I was a specific kind of total mess.
For example, if you had said to me then, “Welcome home,” I probably would have winced at you and said something like, “What is home? I don’t know where my home is.” Which, by the way, is a concept I’m still thinking through, and I don’t totally disagree with the self I was when I got “home.” And that’s why I still use quotation marks around the word HOME sometimes.
I took an online Cultural Anthropology class for graduate school during the first few months of my time in South Sudan. The idea of “home” is something we thought about critically, as one thinks in grad school, hopefully. We were asked to explain what it is that makes a person feel at home. I will continue to brag until death about the people I was in grad school with because they were some of the most fantastic people I’ve ever known.
(We were in the Eastern University, Campolo College of Graduate and Professional Studies, School of Leadership and Development, International Development Cohort – ie: the longest cohort name ever.)
And my classmates came up with some good thoughts surrounding this idea of “home.” I can’t remember all those thoughts but some have stuck with me, and some echoed my own thoughts.
I think the idea of “home” involves a certain familiarity, not just with people but with the space one is occupying. It involves being known and feeling like you belong.
I once wrote a letter to a friend while I was living in South Sudan. I loved writing letters, by hand, to friends and family. There was something about it that was so right. In that letter, I made the proclamation that home is less about the place and more about the person. I don’t know if I even knew what I meant when I wrote that but somehow I thought maybe I should know what I meant, eventually. Like, it was something I wanted to live into.
And just now, this saying popped into my head: “Make yourself at home.” We say that to each other sometimes, don’t we? Like when you visit a friend’s house for the first time and they say that to you and you’re thinking, “Ooooooook, how am I going to do that? I don’t even know where the toilet is?” Or is that just me? What do they mean, MAKE MYSELF AT HOME? Isn’t home a place that already exists?! WHY DO I HAVE TO PUT EFFORT INTO THIS?!
But I did have to put effort into it. South Sudan was never going to feel like home if I left it up to South Sudan. There was nothing familiar about that place. Except maybe the heat because I was born and raised in Bakersfield, California and spent my summers playing softball in 115 degree heat. I always took pride, oddly(?), that those summers had prepared me for the desert.
In South Sudan, in the beginning, I felt known and like I belonged on a surface level. For example, a stranger greeted me at the Juba International Airport with a sign that had my name written on it in all caps. It was a first and I was pretty excited about it, actually. And the organization I was working for was (US)American/Canadian and stood for some things I agreed with. And of course, on a spiritual level, I knew I was home anywhere, everywhere and nowhere. But that was it.
It was up to me to dig in and make myself feel at home.
About midway through my time there, I was talking with my dad on the phone. He asked what my thoughts were on staying in South Sudan longer than I had initially planned. I was on a three-year service term with the organization I worked with – Mennonite Central Committee. So I started answering him. At that point, I wasn’t sure. I said to him that maybe I would stay in South Sudan longer or maybe I would go back home. And he said to me, “I don’t think this is your home anymore, sweetheart.”
WHAT?! Was it something I said? Could he hear it in my voice?
It was not an easy process to make myself feel at home in South Sudan, but by the time I was leaving to return to the United States, I did. I had spent a lot of time and energy making myself at home in that place. It became familiar to me, and I felt known by friends and colleagues – both South Sudanese and (US)American, as well as others like Kenyans and Norwegians. I felt like I belonged. But I obviously had done some growing and changing in order to get to that place.
And then, it was time to go “home.”
I’m exhausted just writing about it.
There are 7,000 other reasons I was a mess when I got home. Not being able to get into them here because I realized there was one more reason as I wrote the sentence, “I was a total mess when I got home,” is comical. I don’t know what I had planned to write about the mess here, but this is what came. From that one sentence, I could probably write a book of essays called “What is home, anyway?’