The power of leaving and the meaning of home

The first half of the story of my journey from flight risk to community member after a lifetime of not knowing what it means to be home.

Snail House (Inktober #4) by nik159 via Deviant Art: A black and white ink drawing of a giant snail with a shell with stairs, a door, and windows like a house.

I’ve lived in 24 different places since graduating high school. If I reach all the way back to birth, the total is closer to 35. An address for each year of my life.

It’s something in my blood, I think. My mom has the travel bug, never staying still for long, but even after I left her house, I continued to shuffle from place to place, following the whims of my heart. I seamlessly changed my location between states, cities, and neighborhoods. Regardless of how long I’d lived there—whether years or weeks—or who I’d come to know and love, the desire to go inevitably struck, steadily tightening its grip until I packed my things and drove off to the next place, ready to be at the start of a new adventure and to leave behind the mushy middle of the old one.

Having the power of leaving is both magic and mayhem. Not many people have it, this ability to untangle themselves from the life they’ve built and then slide away to build a new one without grief, chaos, or regret. It gives you a rare variety of freedom that most people envy. It makes them say, “Wow, I could never do that,” in voices that waver between admiration and disgust. It sets you apart in the best and worst ways because having the power of leaving means you aren’t safe to love or be loved. Because at any moment, you could disappear. Any day could be the day you run.

Sometimes it’s running to something.
Sometimes it’s running away from something.
But it’s always running.

When we moved into what I still think of as “our apartment” despite having not lived there for two years now, I’d been living in Ontario about six years, and I was starting to feel the itch. Hamilton had grown too familiar, too known. Although we were in the middle of a dramatic shift in our social circles, I felt like I was done with the people I called my friends (which had nothing to do with them and everything to do with me). My Canadian residency was nearly expired, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to renew it. It was just time.

But it wasn’t just about me anymore.

I had a husband to consider, the one I’d recommitted myself to after the roughest year of our lives. There was also this business of deciding to have a baby even though I didn’t really want one (story to come—someday). Add in my recent salvation, plus knowing that my health needs can’t be easily met in my home country, and the mathematics of leaving didn’t add up the way it used to. I calculated and recalculated as the desire to go tightened its grip, but no matter how many plans I came up with or how I justified myself, there was no solution to the problem that met all the criteria.

Eventually, I realized that I couldn’t leave. I had to stay.

Oh, how my heart ached.

I don’t know how long I sat with the depression that engulfed me after that. Weeks, for sure. I had touched the bars of my golden cage and gotten a shock so powerful it threw me to the ground, knocking the breath out of me. For the first time in my life, leaving was not an option. I had to confront the fact that without the power of leaving, without being able to start over when it got too hard or too messy, I didn’t actually know how to live my life.

Oof.

What I do know is that one day I was sitting at our high dining table, alone in the middle of the day, staring at nothing, when I heard a voice slide through the thick darkness.

I will teach you what home is.

It wasn’t my voice. But I knew who it belonged to.

The statement was simple and quiet, but it shook loose decades of detritus created by my perpetual state of leaving—loneliness from the lack of close friends, anxiety about wasting an unknown but limited amount of time, inability to commit, uncertainty about the future, independence far beyond what’s healthy—and revealed beneath the rubble an unspoken longing for home.

My heart raced at the idea that, after an entire unanchored lifetime, I could have roots and a history. That I could give directions on the street because I know where I am. That I could know the back way, could witness the rise and fall of a city’s fortunes. That I could be part of the fabric of a place. A denizen, a regular, a friend. That I could be from somewhere—not because it’s where I was born, but because it’s where I choose to be. That I could belong.

That one thought completely reshaped me.

By surrendering the power of leaving, I made room for the power of connection. For friends who know me and whom I know beyond the superficial or practical, for seeing a familiar face each time I leave the house. For art to replace steel, for favorite restaurants to go in and out of business, for the local economy to matter to me. For driving to be a joy rather than a means of escape, for the landscape to be more than GPS markers. For knowing the names of homeless people because I see them every time I go to my preferred movie theater with its sticky floors and sketchy sound. For opinions about taxes and healthcare and infrastructure. For planning where my baby will go to school.

By relinquishing the way I’d always operated, I made room to become part of the life I was already living but couldn’t fully participate in because I’d always held something back, something precious that would have been broken in the leaving. I gave myself permission to sink into the intimacy of the city and its people and be received in all their messy glory.


I walked into this year knowing that God had made good on his promise. After living in one place for nearly a decade, I finally felt connected, rooted, engaged, known, and seen in my community.

I’d finally learned what home means.

And that’s when he asked me to leave.

to be continued

What I mean when I say I’m a Christian

The labels we choose for ourselves are, at best, shorthand for the full story of our heart.

An abstract painting of a mouth and a megaphone surrounded by colorful swirls and shapes

When I say that I am a Christian, what you hear is probably not what I say.

When I say that I am a Christian, I mean

that I’m alive when I wanted to be dead

that I’m married when I should be divorced

that after thirty-five years of the horrors of war—of attack and betrayal and torture and mutilation of self—that there is peace on this battlefield

that I finally recognize the voice of my enemy, which used to sound like myself but now sounds like sweet honey over a worn-out clutch grinding in the distance

that nothing is wasted, not failure or success, not disorder or delight, not bitter or sweet, not time before or time after

that it’s all been worth it.

When I say that I am a Christian, I mean

that lost and found aren’t fixed states but an ongoing game of hide and seek

that fear nips at my heels when it should be crushed beneath them

that I still swear and drink and ignore the homeless man at the intersection and eat my feelings and hurt people sometimes

that I am broken

that I am holy anyway

that I am made of words and earth and breathe borrowed breath and wield power I have not yet begun to grasp

that I am reclaimed and remade, translated and transfigured, chosen and changed

that I am myself.

When I say that I am a Christian, I mean

that I don’t have all the answers and never will and am learning to be okay with that

that what I do know is that there is a love longer and wider and higher and deeper than any and every poets’ ideal

that such love has a name

that I am more interested in the vibrancy of your soul than your partner or your politics

that I love you whether you believe me or not

when I say that I am a Christian.

State of the Ellie: August 2019

A (not so) brief summary of my July. Featuring a nagging case of FOMO, professional maturity, toddler attitude, and being bored with my health updates.

Another Way by Justin Peters - A man in a black leather jacket holds an umbrella with a road and landscape on top

The State of the Ellie is a monthly reflection on what’s been going on in my world for the last 30ish days.

Since the last one was late, this month’s update is of the quick ‘n’ dirty variety to avoid belaboring past points. Also, while July wasn’t calendar-busy, it was internally busy, so buckle up.

Florida

The news here is the same as last time: we’re shooting for November. As we get closer to Thanksgiving, I’m sure things will get nuts again, but for now, we’re back in hurry-up-and-wait mode. Which has given me existential whiplash. It took me a while to figure out why I’ve been feeling so tender, distracted, and lost after the timeline shift, but it’s so obvious now. We were running full tilt getting ready to go for August, then had a concrete wall slam down in front of us. Of course I’m discombobulated—going from 100 to 0 hurts.

I’m also coping with a nagging case of FOMO (as inadvertently evidenced by the story I wrote last week). Most of our team is heading south this month, and frankly, I’m jealous. The delay in our departure makes sense (for more than just immigration purposes—see “Family” below), but there is a huge part of me that just wants to go. To be there, to be starting. There’s another, crappier part of me that’s sulking about feeling left out. I know God’s using this to root out pride and abandonment issues, which is good, but uggggghhhhh. Unpleasant. Right now, I’m choosing to be excited for everyone else and to be as patient as possible until our number is called. It’s not how long you wait but your attitude while waiting that counts, right?

Work

There’s a serious leveling up happening here right now. While I don’t have a full slate of clients (yet), the work I’m doing with them, the way I handle my schedule, and even the rates I charge are morphing from wobbly-legged amateur to sort-of-confident professional person. I’m taking on challenges that make me uncomfortable but not uneasy. I’m valuing my time and skills more. I’m finding new ways, places, and times to work that seemed impossible five years ago.

I’m growing, you guys.

There’s still a fair amount of chaos, and I’m still looking for clients, but there’s a new undercurrent of competency I’ve never felt in my business life before. And I kinda like it.

Also: I wrote my first fiction last week for the first time in two years. I had to double check the dates because that doesn’t seem real. I miss it so much. I have tons of story ideas, and I want so badly to finish Forgotten Relics. But I can’t seem to pull my mental/creative/temporal shit together. Then I fall into the comparison trap—“XYZ author person writes all their novels while working 40 hours a week and homeschooling their five kids and…”—you know. Anyway. The desire is there. I can’t make any promises, but I will say there’ve been inklings in my prayer time that full-blown fiction is returning. Someday.

Family

Less than a week after we had to delay Florida, we found out why we needed to: Lino’s mom was rushed to the hospital in the middle of the night with heart issues that resulted in her getting a pacemaker. I’ll spare the long story, but the upshot is that we’re really glad we decided to stay. She’s facing a lot of changes in her life that we need (want!) to be present for and to support. On top of that, my sister-in-law is expecting her second baby mid-August, so we get to be present for and to support her through that newborn season, too. So it turned out that what we’d been angsting about as a setback to building the Kingdom was actually a green light (reminder) to be doing it here, now.

Parenting

I always feel like I should have so much more to write here. How do those mommybloggers do it?!

Each month that goes by intensifies Mackenzie’s toddlerness. The last couple of weeks, her attitude has ratcheted up to teenage Valley Girl levels, including once telling her daddy “don’t worry about what I’m doing and mind your own business.” I….what. We’re at a bit of a loss as to how to discipline that, but are doing our best to be consistent with what we know to do. We also suspect that, after six months of not needing a nap, she might need one again. The couple of times we made her lay down due to a late night, her attitude was markedly improved. Hrm….*strokes beard*

Also (TMI ALERT): Mack’s big accomplishment this month is that she all the sudden decided to start pooping on the little potty in the morning and then get right back in bed to wait for her wakeup call. WHAT. She’s been daytime trained since May, but we’ve purposely not started night training because we don’t want to deal with any stress-based regressions in the mattress department due to moving. But, hey, if she wants to poop on the potty, I’m all for it.

Health

Guys, I’m so bored with this category. It’s one of the regulars, but honestly, it’s the same stuff all the time. Cold symptoms, aching joints, weird stuff doctors don’t care much about because it isn’t bad enough. Blah, blah, blah. You guys deserve better than this. Suffice to say, I’m on sinus infection #2 of the year. Two more and the ENT will give a crap about what I say. Hooray?

Miscellaneous

  • My reading life is picking up! I wrestled that Tolkien to the ground, finally, and rewarded myself with Redshirts and a few YA graphic novels I randomly grabbed at the library. Going on to Murakami shorts next. Gotta retrain my flabby brain after four years of basically just reading nutritional labels.
  • Our local libraries show movies for free in the afternoon, and we’re taking Mack to train her up to go to the Real Theatre. Moana tomorrow. Let’s see if she can sit still for the whole thing.
  • It’s starting to be too dark at 5:30am for me to safely walk our neighborhood. This makes me sad because a) I need to exercise, and b) it reminds me that winter is coming. Argh. I might have to find some room in the budget to get back to the gym.

That’s it for me this month! Now it’s your turn.

Jump in the comments to tell me how YOUR July went and what you’ve got planned for August.

Fiction: Just a Jump to the Left

It happened like magic, like lightning. First she was there, then she wasn’t. It happened so fast I thought I’d imagined her.

Until it happened again.

And again.

And again.

A guy in line for coffee, gone as if he’d never been standing two feet in front of me, glued to his phone. The barista didn’t miss a beat.

The elderly couple who got on the A-train but never got off.

My boss.

I stopped looking to other bystanders for help after a dozen or so. All I ever got in return for my panicked asking if they’d seen what I’d seen was incredulous glares and a breathalyser test. I’d trawl social media and every news outlet worth reading after each one, but there was nothing to find. No missing persons alerts. No investigations. It was like nothing ever happened. The fabric of the universe puckered briefly around the hole created by a person’s disappearance, then tightened to create a seamless swathe of new reality. Erased. Forgotten. Unmade.

No one noticed and no one was interested—not even conspiracy theorist message boards.

Except me.

For a little while.

It’s amazing what you get used to. The first year was hard—a series of barf-inducing shocks—but after that, I only noticed because I felt obligated to.

After that first girl blinked out of existence, I wrote down as much as I could remember about her, hoping I’d see her again and confirm my suspicion that it was a mirage, a side effect of overindulging the night before. But I didn’t. When the second one happened, I was sure I was nuts. I scrawled pages and pages in my journal trying to connect the dots of my past to reveal what my parents had done to me that would lead to such insanity. Three makes a pattern, though, and I eventually realized that I wasn’t suffering from sudden-onset prosopagnosia (thanks, WebMD). I was compiling evidence. With each successive event, I dutifully logged the abductee’s physical description, location, activity, and other pertinent details in a notebook I carried everywhere. If this was real, the world needed a record of whatever it turned out to be—proof that these humans once existed, even if it was flimsy at best.

But aside from that? Not much changed. I got up, went to work, had lunch, messed around online, went home, ate dinner, binged Netflix, went to bed too late, got up in the morning and did it all again. Just like before.

Don’t judge me. What else was I supposed to do? I’m not a quantum physicist or an investigative journalist. I don’t even believe in aliens. I’m an accountant. A normal guy who tried to warn people about the disappearances but got laughed out of offices, chat rooms, and bars. A guy whose best friend ghosted him because his apartment was covered in blurry photos and increasingly illegible sticky notes.

I’m not a hero.


Five years in is when things started getting bad. The city had lost over half its population, and it showed. Restaurants closed with linens and cutlery laid out for evening service. Students showed up to classes with no teachers. Trash pickup stopped. Power outages started. But despite the inconvenience and the growing stink, those that remained continued as if nothing had changed. Each person that disappeared was smoothed over by time and space leaving not even a memory behind. The barista still smiled and asked about my tropical fish, and I still grinned back and told her they were a pain in the ass but too expensive to flush down the toilet. At night, I went back to my rent-free apartment (thanks, disappeared landlord) and pored through my journals by candlelight, speculating about what had happened to these missing people—now numbering in the millions, maybe billions.

And when it would be my turn.

It’s weird to have FOMO about what amounts to an extinction-level event. I had no idea what had happened to everyone, but my theories ran the gamut from “actually abducted by aliens and getting a serious probing” to “slow-motion rapture” and everywhere in between. None of them were something I wanted to participate in.

And yet….

One day, I walked into the corner café to find it empty. The barista had vanished. I stood among the dusty tables blinking at where she had been for the past five years in defiance of the cosmic weirdness happening around her. I hadn’t realized until that moment how much of a fixture she’d become in my life. While everyone else phased out of existence, she was always right there.

I turned in a slow circle, scanning the street outside through the huge windows. Trash was piled so high it leaned on parked cars covered in tickets. Storefronts were long since gated. Nothing moved except a newspaper caught in the breeze. Time spooled out in a long, unbroken thread as I strained my eyes for any sign of human life. But there was none.

Panic rising, I fished my phone from my pocket and opened my contacts list. It had taken me a while to notice the entries being erased, but it had started happening faster and faster, whittling five hundred names down to dozens in a rapid purge of non-existent people.

That morning, I’d had ten contacts left. Now, there were none.

That’s when I broke.

You’d think it would have happened earlier. When I realized I wasn’t insane and this was really happening, for instance, or when my brother disappeared in the middle of a family dinner and everyone kept eating. There were thousands of reasons to utterly lose it practically every day. But I never did. Because I knew—absolutely knew—that there would be an answer. That the disappearing would stop or somebody smarter than me would fix it. That one day every missing person would pop back into existence and we could laugh about it (after a while). I’d held on to the unwavering belief that this too, would pass.

But as I sank to the floor of the abandoned coffee shop, the tears finally flowed, pooling around my face as laid my head on the ground.

All gone. All of them. Gone. Everyone. Except me.


It was dark when I woke up. My eyes were gritty from crying, and my legs were numb from passing out in child’s pose. I rolled over, blinking away the blur and willing my feet to move. I lifted a heavy arm to check the time on my phone, but the battery had died. I wondered how long it would be until the world’s power went out permanently. How long until I lost my grip on sanity, alone without the Internet?

A rattle from the door behind me startled a yelp from my throat. I cursed the pins and needles in my legs as I wrestled my body underneath a table to hide. I balled up and held my breath, eyes straining against the darkness to see who—or what—was coming. I tried not to imagine how many tentacles, arms, and eyes they would have.

Old-fashioned bells jangled as the door opened. “Hello?” said a round shadow. “Is someone in here?”

The shadow reached out and flicked a switch. The overhead lighting snapped on, flooding the room and blinding me. It was only for a second, but when I could see again, a pair of legs stood inches from my hiding spot.

Human legs.

“Matt? Is that you? Why are you on the floor?”

The voice was human, too, I realized. And familiar.

Curiosity overrode self-preservation. I risked peeking out from the safety of the table and looked up into the concerned face of Amy, the barista.

My barista.

I shot up on wobbly legs to throw my arms around her in an embrace usually reserved for life preservers. She laughed awkwardly, “Hey! Okay! Good to see you, too,” and patted my back.

I let her go, then stood back to marvel at her existence. “You didn’t disappear,” I observed. I knew it was stupid—I’d had this same conversation with her a hundred times over the years with no result—but I said it anyway.

Instead of her usual eye roll, though, this time she smiled and said, “I did.” Then she gestured at the early-morning customers trickling into the café. “We all did.”

Within minutes, I was surrounded by people. Real human beings with purses and Bluetooth and hangovers and BO. People that had slipped out of my life one by one without a trace. They were all staring at me. I stared right back.

I tried to ask all my pent-up questions at once—what happened, where are we, did we die, is this a dream or an alternate dimension or the darkest timeline—but nothing came out. Tears of relief choked off the words.

I had made it. After years of wondering and worrying, I was finally here. I didn’t know where “here” was, but I didn’t care. All that mattered was that I wasn’t the last person on Earth anymore. That I didn’t have to spend the rest of my life going slowly insane asking why not me. I was with people again, and that meant I was home.

Amy touched my arm lightly, her eyes sparkling with an excitement I didn’t understand.

“We’ve been waiting for you,” she said. “Now we can get started.”


Story content: © Ellie Di Julio 2019
Art: “Fade Away” by TheFoxAndTheRaven

The small mercy of an almost parking ticket

I deserved to get a parking ticket after what happened. But I didn’t. And that made me feel some things.

I put all my money in the meter for an hour and a half in the public parking lot, way more than was strictly necessary. If it took the dentist longer than that to file down one pointy filling, I would definitely have to switch docs.

When my “you have 10 minutes until your meter expires” alarm went off, I asked the receptionist if everything was okay. She hustled away, then back, then speed-walked me into a chair at the back.

In and out in under 3 minutes after waiting for over an hour past my appointment time.

Five minutes left on the meter.

I did my own speed walk through the winding corridors of the mall, sprinting across the street to my car. And as I passed the huge SUV parked next to me, I saw it: yellow paper folded into my windshield wipers.

A parking ticket.

I looked down through the glass and saw that my dash was empty. I must have left the car unlocked and someone took it. Frustrating, but not unusual downtown.

I swore not quite under my breath and snatched up the ticket, already planning to fight it, even without the proof of the missing receipt, boiling with righteous indignation.

I unfolded the paper and, instead of a list of charges, it said: 

“Please ensure your ticket is displayed on the dash. Have a good weekend.”

That’s when I noticed the white paper lazing upside down on the steering column. My heart tied itself in a knot. It must have slipped off when I shut the door earlier.

I reached out and turned it over.

A parking lot ticket showing the time

One minute to spare.


This happened last week, and I can’t stop thinking about it. I even keep the ticket up on the kitchen shelf where I can remember it as an object lesson.

Parking enforcement is srsbizns in downtown Hamilton. I’ve been ticketed for parking within 30cm of a driveway and for being parked too long at the curb despite having moved my car two blocks because the chalk on my tire ended up in the same position as it started.

Ruth. Less.

But that day? The day when I was whizzing through task after task–both for the big move and my nascent freelance biz–and was frazzled after being patient too long with an overflowing dentist’s office?

That day, I got mercy.

When I didn’t deserve it. When it was my fault for breaking the rules. When it would’ve been a poetically just cap to my hectic, frustrating day.

Because that’s when mercy matters: when we least deserve it.

Not getting a parking ticket is a small thing. But the relief I felt, the rush of endorphins when I realized the parking officer had every right to punish me and chose not to–that mattered. It straightened my perspective. It reminded me to hold on a little looser, to breathe a little deeper–to remember that love shows up in the strangest places but never fails to change things.

It also reminded me to make sure my dang receipt is on the dash next time. Geez.