How to be left behind: the power of staying

In the first half of this story, I learned what home means. Now, I have to learn what it means to be left behind.

Two women in silhouette sitting on a guard rail waiting for a train at night

Quick recap: I used to be able to leave anyone, anywhere, anytime. But there came I day when I couldn't leave. I chose to surrender my power of leaving and was rewarded with finally knowing what "home" really means. And just as I was confidently walking in my new, connected, cozy reality, God asked me to leave.

So, I tell you that story so I can tell you this one.

The call to move to Florida and plant a church came in January, bringing with it a cavalcade of questions.

Why us? What could we possibly add to this team of pastors and elders? What do we tell our families? Where will we live? How do you get a visa? How do we get jobs? What’s the exchange rate? When does school start? Do we need to sell all our stuff? When do we go?

But one particular question didn’t join the flashmob. It stood patiently outside the throng, waiting for the excitement to die down and for every other question to settle itself as best it could. For two months, it waited.

And then one day, after all the paperwork was mailed and a launch date was set, it whispered,

Why now?

It was so quiet and so sad, like the voice of a scared child, that when I finally heard it, I stopped washing the dishes, sat down on the kitchen stepstool, and cried.

Why now? Why—after years of painstakingly teaching me what it means to belong, to be from somewhere, to be part of a community, to have roots—why would God ask me to leave my hard-won home for a place I’ve never been and a people that aren’t mine? Why not before I lost the power of leaving? When it wouldn’t have hurt so terribly to think of saying goodbye? When I knew what to do with my belongings and my heart?

I prayed through the tears, begging for God to explain this cruel game of keep-away. But all that came was a concerned toddler asking why Mommy was crying. So I dried my face, hugged my baby, took a deep breath, and went about my day.


That was in March.

And every day that passed after, the question made sure I didn’t forget it. It greeted me when I woke up, slid into my thoughts during the day, and tucked me into bed at night. It was always there—never angry or demanding, but there.

Time didn’t help. Unlike nearly all of my other zillion questions about the move, it had no practical answer. There was no form I could fill out, no research I could do, no expert I could pay. No matter how I tried to resolve it, the question remained.

Why now?

One morning, I was sitting at my desk, watching the hazy Hamilton sunrise, writing in my journal to work through the sticky emotions that cropped up from being delayed in our leaving yet again. The decision to stay until at least November when we thought we’d be gone by August compounded the question.

Why now?
and
Why NOT now?

Why do we have to stay while the rest of the team leaves? Why are we being left behind? Will we get left out? Are they starting without us? Is there still a place for us? Are we actually meant to go?

Line after line, I tried to come to terms with the whiplash I felt, the disappointment and resentment and jealousy. The terror of abandonment. I scribbled my way through reminders that everything has a purpose, that the work is always here and now, and that people naturally pull away from what’s exiting their lives.

That reminded me of all the promises I’ve made to now long-lost friends during farewell parties. Pledges to stay in touch and to visit. I thought of how much I meant it at the time and how they wanted to believe me. I thought of how I knew it was bullshit even as I said it.

And that’s when the answer came.

You need to learn what it means to stay behind.

I caught my breath as understanding crashed over me. The pen quivered in my hand and tears sprang to my eyes.

Of course.

Learning the meaning of home was only the first half of the lesson. Now that I know what it means to have your heart fully in a place, I need to know what it’s like to stay there when someone you love leaves. To have them slice off a piece of that heart and take it with them, most likely to dry out and rot, forgotten in the swirling excitement of their new life—without you.

I’ve spent my entire life being the one who leaves, the one who gets the fresh start, the one with a shining future ahead. I’ve never given a moment’s consideration to the feelings of the people I’ve left behind. And now God wants to complete my understanding of home by teaching me what it’s like to be on both sides of the leaving.

Because our friends here have to do the hard, brave work of filling the gaps we leave behind. People who are forever written into my story and me into theirs and who shouldn’t have to inherit my empty promises.

Because our families will be thousands of miles away, some for the first time ever, and we cannot rely on mere feelings of obligation to maintain our connection.

Because we’re going to Florida, a state with one of the highest immigrant populations in the union. We’re walking into a community filled with people who have left behind family and friends in search of a better life, as well as those who have been left behind themselves. How can I possibly have compassion for their experience—and the experience of those not with them, those that weigh so heavy on their hearts—when I’ve been so callous and blasé about it in the past? How can I hope to show the fullness of God’s love for them if my own heart has only seen one facet of the story?

Our delay has a purpose. But it hurts. It’s hard. I don’t like it. I’m sad and lonely and worried. I’m afraid of being forgotten. I’m afraid of so many things.

But in this pain, I’m healing. In the waiting, I’m learning to be joyful despite uncertainty, to engage instead of withdraw, to be hopeful when it’s easier to despair. This is where wisdom and compassion and wholeness come from. The strength and grace to help others through their own struggle for peace.

And where we’re going, I’m going to need it.

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.

The road goes ever on: Where we’re moving and why (mostly)

Don’t feel bad if you didn’t know: It’s been a secret since January. Here’s a quick-n-dirty FAQ on our expatriation.

This past weekend was a big one for me and mine, not just because of the incredibleness of getting to start over fresh in my marriage after 10 years, but because of a second huge announcement that most of you likely didn’t see.

After nearly 20 years of serving the Hamilton area, our church is starting a new campus in Orlando, Florida this summer.

And we’re going.

Supernatural Dean what excuse me what GIF

I know. We were surprised, too.

I’m sure you have a zillion questions, and I’m going to do my best to answer them, but I need to ask you for two things.

  1. Please read the entire post before you comment/DM/email/text/call so we’re on the same page, and I don’t have to repeat myself too much.
  2. Understand that this is an extremely complex situation with a lot of moving parts and question marks. I won’t explain it all perfectly the first time.

Okay? Okay.

Here goes.


Gold toy car on a road map of Orlando Florida (via Alamy.com)

Why are you going?

The short answer is because we were called.

Yeah, that made me groan and roll my eyes, too. But it’s the truth. Cliches are cliches for a reason.

Our pastors invited us to join the launch team in the plan’s nascent stages in a turn of events that could only have been divinely arranged. (If you want to hear the full story, just ask! It’s too long for this post.) When we heard what they were planning, our spirits leaped for joy, although we didn’t have any clue why. We sat on our answer for three days but knew full well we were going. We just knew.

But why you?

You have no idea how often we ask ourselves that on a daily basis, especially as the days count down to go-time. We’re not pastors, elders, or ministry leaders; we’re a couple of laypeople who haven’t even been saved very long.

However.

Practically speaking, Lino and I have unique skillsets that are surprisingly useful in planting a church. Lino’s become an expert in community outreach through his work with Ruck 2 Remember, and he’s an Excel wizard with experience in all stages of business operations after a decade in call center management. For my part, it’s become abundantly clear that God wants to do something with my writing, and I’ve learned to channel my perfectionism into organizational skills, which are crucial for any startup.

We’re also discovering ever deeper wellsprings of hope, love, and trust as we continue to say “yes” to the call despite the increasing obstacles and attacks that kind of commitment invites. It’s really shown us what we’re made of. So, even if on the day we drive the truck across the border God says to go back and stay in Hamilton, I say it’s been worth it.

Also, the fact that I’m American helps.

Why Orlando?

It’s weird, right? I mean, missionaries get called to Haiti or Sudan or China–places where things are realrealbad and folks need hope. You don’t get called to Disneyworld.

And yet, there’s a need.

Our pastors have been vacationing in the area for nearly 10 years and have become increasingly aware of a ferocious desire for God’s love among folks who claim to already know Jesus. They’re hungry and thirsty for divine love, for a new way of living in this world, for relationship over religion.

We’re going to Orlando to stir up the wonder, glory, and joy of God in the hearts of those who have forgotten it–or never knew it in the first place–in the midst of a land overflowing with buildings but starving for church as it’s meant to be: a community that loves like family.

Fortunately, that’s exactly what we do best.

When are you leaving?

Um, well, we aren’t sure. We’ve known we were going since January, but the truth is we don’t have a solid moving date yet. As it stands, we’re aiming at August 1. Which means we’ve got about a month to get all our ducks (alligators?) in a row. But we truly have no idea. Could be Christmas. I’ll get back to you.

Will you be back?

You’ll see us again! As visitors.

We’re treating this as a permanent move. We decided from the start that if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it all the way. No lukewarm, half-in bet-hedging. We’re taking the stuff we can’t bear to part with and making the Sunshine State our new home.

So, what now?

There are still so many things unsettled–including jobs, housing, schools, and immigration statuses–so it’s all constantly in motion even at this late hour. But since it isn’t a secret anymore, I’m able to share the journey with you as it unfolds. You’ll be hearing a lot more about our antics soon.

For now, we’re stepping into July with fear and trembling but also hope and certainty that whatever may pass is good. Don’t get me wrong: this is scary as hell and I’ve cried rivers. But every step we’ve taken forward has been accompanied by peace in the midst of chaos, provision in the grip of lack, and reassurance in the face of doubt. And that tells me we’re on the right track.

So.

Now.

Tony Stark end of presentation ready for your questions