Unpacking ALL of the Suitcases

My eyes wandered over the piles of stuff. Boxes, bags, cords, paper, stickers, dishes, curios. So. Much. Stuff. And so little space. The storage room was already piled high with boxes and books. The hall closet was full of jackets, Christmas décor and wedding gifts.

The bedroom closet contained clothing and decorating items. None of the items needing to find a new home belonged in the kitchen, and only a few belonged in the bathroom. Where in the world was I going to put everything? And how in the world does one combine two lives into a one bedroom apartment?

Initially I planned to organize our entire apartment in a single day. I could do it. I’d made multiple international moves and lived in four different apartments. Surely organizing an apartment, which was already partially organized, was doable the Saturday after our wedding.

After thirty minutes of moving and arranging items, my goal changed to putting all of the things in boxes and baskets and drawers in an effort to see the floor and feel as though things were in their place. A temporary solution but a solution which saved my sanity on my first full Saturday as a wife. My time spent rearranging and organizing last month reminded me of the messy unpacking process of reentry.

When I returned from serving overseas, I came home with more than my physical baggage; I returned with suitcases full of emotions about my ministry, with a rather large suitcase containing my role as a cross-cultural worker, and with skills I acquired along the way. My natural inclination to unpack all of the emotions and use all of the skills was impossible.

Instead I did exactly what I did while cleaning our apartment. Some of these metaphorical suitcases I unpacked and put away immediately. For others I have found a place to keep them hidden from people who don’t know me well. And others I have gently placed in a storage room to be pulled out whenever the need arises.

Opening and unpacking the suitcases filled with emotions was a task I knew required help. Sorting through all of the pain and joy from my time overseas wasn’t a quick process. Hours of spending time with God in prayer, journaling about how I was dealing with the change, taking time for debriefing and renewal at MTI, sharing my thoughts and feelings with family and close friends – all of these helped me sort through my emotional suitcases.

Yes, a stray emotion or two related to my time overseas still pops up on occasion, even though I’ve been back in the States for over a year. However, unpacking the deep emotions and hurts soon after I returned made reentry a much smoother process.

During my ten years with my organization I had a role. I was “overseas worker” Laura. I shared in supporting churches; I sent regular prayer updates; I attended training and conferences. Suddenly there were no prayer updates to send, no reports to fill out, no funds to raise.

The first six months of my return I used my overseas worker suitcase before carefully repacking it and placing it in the closet. Conversations no longer revolve around organizational policy and politics or partnership strategies or crazy travel stories. At first this felt marvelous – no more prayer updates! And then marvelous was replaced by a feeling of being left out. Over time the feeling of being left out has dissipated as all the newness (job, home, friends) of life now has taken over.

My suitcases of skills and strategies have been unpacked and are being used. The courage I know I have when entering a room full of people I don’t know; I still have to pull it out some times. Using a large Ikea bag to carry multiple bags of groceries upstairs, a strategy I implemented during years of European apartment living, is a trick I pulled out recently. The strategies I learned doing children and youth ministry are helping me with my current job. When contents from these suitcases appear, I smile because they are evidence of how God uses all aspects of our lives to prepare us for what He has in store for us.

Some of the suitcases we bring back with us end up collecting dust in a storage closet because we never open them. We stop sharing the stories about airports and residency visas because people in our “new” life can’t relate. The people we ministered to remain a part of our hearts but they fade from our everyday thoughts. Instead, we create new memories, develop new skills, build new friendships and fill new boxes and baskets with these items.

If you’re beginning the re-entry process, take time to unpack slowly. Allow God to work in your heart as you remove items from your box of emotions. Be still in the confusion, which comes with transition. Sit in the paradox of joy and pain, which comes with re-entry.

Take time to process what you are experiencing and feeling. And then move forward and create a new suitcase of emotions. The friends in your friendship box will change, so say goodbyes well and say hellos well too. Marvel in the skills and abilities God has developed in you while you were serving overseas. Thank Him for how He has uniquely equipped you for what He has in store for you next.

~~~

How’s your unpacking process?

Are there suitcases you have found particularly helpful in your transition?

Are there some you are avoiding unpacking?

10 Comments

  1. Kim May 24, 2016

    Hi Laura- we are 8 months back and I can relate to so much here. Lately I have really felt the loss of the “overseas worker” title and I’ve definitely wondered which communities I fit into anymore. I know it all takes time… and yes, definitely “sitting in the paradox of joy and pain” right now. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Laura May 25, 2016

      Kim, praying for you as you continue to transition. One of the beautiful aspects about Velvet Ashes for me is how it’s a safe space where I can still talk about my past experiences and role. I hope it’s the same for you. 🙂

  2. Michele Womble May 26, 2016

    It’s really funny, Laura, that the title of your post is “unpacking all the suitcases” and that you are talking about unpacking –

    I’ve mentioned a few times in book club this month that

    I’ve been back in the States (were here for 2-3 years) for 6 months and I’ve yet to unpack my toiletries bag.  My daughter has been encouraging me to do it, after all, I have a whole drawer to myself that I can put my things in…

    but…

    I still haven’t.

    Amy wants me to write a poem about it.

    i think I need to because writing (usually poetry) is how I figure out what’s going on –

    and something is definitely going on with that – there’s somethign I think emotionally that I can’t unpack –

    because in reality, while it’s been 6 months since we’ve been here, that toiletries bag has stayed packed as it is now for I don’t know how many years.  (And my carry-on).  I use things out of them, as if they are my furniture.

    So, I love how you use the picture of unpacking our emotions, going through the “suitcases”, deciding what to use, and what to store.  Unpacking.

    1. Laura May 26, 2016

      Michele,

      I’d love to read your poem when you finish it! Thanks for sharing your story; praying for you as you continue to adjust and unpack.

      1. Michele Womble May 29, 2016

        I did finish it!  Here is the link to it:

        breadandsmallfish.com/2016/05/why-i-havent-unpacked-my-toiletries-bag.html

        (I did share it on the grove this week, so maybe you’ve already seen it by now.)

  3. Anna May 26, 2016

    One of our family sayings has become, “Take your luggage; leave your baggage.”  The physical suitcases are easy for me to unpack.  Even when I’m trying to figure out where everything goes, at least it’s a tangible goal.  The more we’ve moved around, the less stuff has moved with us, which also makes it easier.

    The emotional suitcases aren’t so easy.  Before our last big transition, someone gave us the advice to take time (much more time than I had been thinking was necessary.)  As we went through the process, I saw the wisdom of that.  Unlike with tangible items, there tend to be more and more layers that come up as you are dealing with things.  The time and space to deal with that before focusing on the next step helped us a lot.

    1. Laura May 26, 2016

      Anna,

      Yes, time and more time. Thank you for sharing!

  4. Kris May 26, 2016

    This article really hit home. We’ve been back “home” for 10 months now, but I am still trying to find my place and discover who I am here. “Paradox” is our family word for this season. Joy and pain coexisting. Gaining so much yet losing so much. Paradox. Thank you for this article!

    1. Laura May 26, 2016

      Kris,

      You’re welcome; praying for you and your family during this time of “paradox.”

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