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Katy Sundararajan is the Th.M. Program Administrator and International Student Advisor at Western Theological Seminary, and partners with her husband as an RCA missionary with Audio Scripture Ministries. She is filling in for Tom today.
Holland Public schools had a snow day last week. As would be expected, I also had to work that morning. I’m grateful for my thoughtful day care provider who texted me before I even knew it was a snow day to ask whether my 2nd grader would like to come to day care that morning with my 4 year old. Yes, I said, and I was relieved. My Tuesday routine could continue as scheduled. Somehow, despite my own longing for a day reading books beside a cozy fire, and my children’s reluctance to leave their warm nest of blankets, we managed to forge out into the snowy morning, nearly on-time. The visibility wasn’t great, and I didn’t yet have my snow tires, maddeningly scheduled to be put on that very afternoon, so it was slippery, but I felt overall that the roads were reasonable when taking my time. There weren’t many cars on the road, actually, which seemed strange. Where were all the other people that had to go to work? Were they sitting beside their fires instead?! Eventually I pulled up to the seminary. I felt a unique surge of excitement. I had just been there the previous afternoon, but something about the drive across town to daycare and back had left me feeling like a survivor. I was eager to re-enter those doors and exclaim to the other survivors about the blustering wind and the slippery roads. I wanted to see who else had made it, and ponder who might be sitting fireside. I wanted to fling off my coat and scarf to hear and tell thrilling stories of survival while our boots dripped on the carpets. Flush with excitement, I raced inside.
It is one kind of re-entry, I suppose. Perhaps it was not a typical re-entry experience for me, but my racing heart and eager anticipation to go through the doors and be present with the rest of the “survivors” got my attention. There is a portion of my life, the missionary portion, that involves a regular dose of travel to India and back, followed by re-entry. Unlike my snow day experience, re-entry usually feels pretty awkward and undesirable to me. Maybe that is true for others as well since since everyone experiences re-entry of some kind, at some point. Obviously, those who travel internationally experience different kinds of positive and negative jolts as they come back into their own culture. But even if you travel nationally, for vacation or otherwise, there are the bumps and hiccups of returning to “life as usual.” What about when you have missed a few days, weeks, or even months of “life as usual” due to sickness? Going back to routine can be terribly complex, wearisome, and even worrisome.
Stepping away from my normal rhythm, and then stepping back in makes me feel vulnerable. Maybe a limited amount of friends witnessed a limited amount of my trip as I posted it to Facebook (which I did on purpose so that I could make an attempt at staying reasonably in tune with those in my normal life, right?) but those people make up a mere fraction of my work and social life. And, not only is there no guarantee how many people even knew I was gone and for what reason, there is no guarantee how many people will want to ask me a slew of questions, informed or uninformed, about my trip. Others will simply want to ask the surface-y, but I believe well-intentioned question, How was your trip?! Or, there is always the likelihood that people will simply continue on with life/work as usual, and I will be expected to remember the appropriate way to function in the environment, despite the fact that I may have been wearing a sari in 85 degree weather and eating a lot of rice with my fingers just three days prior.
Yes, re-entry is vulnerable. I feel shy about facing all of the people and their questions (or lack-of questions.) The thing is, I do have stories upon stories inside of me. Stories that are beautiful, or surprising, or exotically different from what is happening in my normal here-and-now. I have stories that are embarrassing, and I may have had experiences that are confusing or frustrating, or so exotically different that I want to process them with someone. In actuality, I would probably like to find just the right person who will gush over my trip with me, comfort my rankled nerves, laugh over my silly mistakes, and offer me every kind of grace when life is too different. It isn’t always the right time or place to share all my stories, and yet it seems strange to keep it all under my surface, like it wasn’t real or didn’t happen. Then it can seem like my life is suddenly not real, or I am not real. It can feel like I and my stories are not worth the real effort of being listened to, or God-forbid I decide you are not worth the real effort of sharing those stories.
All people want to tell their stories, and all people want their stories to be heard. Our stories make us real, and valuable. It doesn’t matter if you want to tell the story of a white-out on your drive in, or a story of white-water rafting in Chile, or about lying on the beach in Florida, or about surviving the worst, teeth-chattering fever-chills that came with this last bout of flu. We want our story to matter. And, when you re-enter your “normal” environment after having been changed by a time away it is a vulnerable enterprise to find “normal” again. Normal looks different when it shares space with a changed you.
I’m in awe of the people who re-enter life with a broadcaster’s aim and their heart on their sleeve. It isn’t me. Rather, I am grateful for the people who allow me some time and wide space for the new stories to make their way out, navigating my old, every-day life in such a way that I recognize myself and my value. Telling my stories helps me to see that Katy is Katy, in the snow, and in the sari.