I have a wagon wheel tattooed on my leg. It’s a pretty permanent reminder of impermanence. I like to take pictures of it whenever I travel somewhere new, to keep a chronicle of all the places I’ve ‘parked my wagon wheels.’ But its meaning is so much deeper than that.
A few years ago I lived and worked with the Roma people in Bulgaria. Known and stereotyped for their nomadic, ‘caravan’ lifestyle, this community taught me a lot about transience. I learned what it is to make a home wherever you are, to not depend so much on a place and its things as on your people. I experienced life embraced by a ‘clan’ and accepted as family even though the difference in my culture and skin tone were as obvious as night and day. I felt all the hard goodbyes without a promised ‘see you next time,’ and all the joyful reunions and relationships that picked up right where they left off, no matter how much time had elapsed.
My ‘gypsy’ years taught me a lot about expat life. I live in a country that doesn’t match my passport, so I’m an expatriate, and I experience all the joys and sorrows, trials and triumphs attendant to this special lifestyle.
Being an expat means I know things can turn on a dime. Life can change drastically in a matter of hours or days, and you have to roll with the punches. It means I say a lot of goodbyes. It means I have built lots of rich relationships. It means I have friends in lots of different corners of the world. It means sometimes the people closest to my heart actually live the farthest away from me. It means having a go-bag in my closet. It means trying to monitor a sometimes overwhelmingly foreign culture for a few signs of ‘different’ that mean something isn’t right. It means being misunderstood and misunderstanding. It means stuttering along in the language of a friend. It sometimes means being utterly, nakedly, vulnerable and dependent upon the kindness of strangers and new friends. It means I build family fast and bond deeply but sometimes I hate myself for it because goodbyes are awful. It means opening my home to strangers because I know what it means to be welcomed in as one myself. It means a rollercoaster of emotions and changes. It makes for a wild ride.
This worldwide pandemic going on right now has really made the impermanence of expat life stand out harshly. In the past week alone I’ve felt the border crossings lock tight shut around me. I’ve helped friends, neighbors, coworkers pack to leave the country at the drop of a hat. After much anguish and many changed plans, they got out of the country on one of the last possible flights. I’ve stocked up my house in case social upheaval keeps me indoors. Unnatural crowd sizes made my skin prickle. I’ve fielded texts and calls from friends and acquaintances leaving that I didn’t even get to say goodbye to. I’ve kept a wary eye on emails from the embassy. I’ve played ridiculous games in the market shopping with friends to create some sense of lightness and normalcy. I’ve munched on a mendazi in town while counting heads to make sure I was spatially aware of my people… just in case. I’ve cried hard and laughed hard. I’ve stress baked until it seems like every surface in my house is dusted with flour. I’ve belted out my emotions singing along with “I’m just too good at goodbyes” and “all by myself” and “big wheel keep on turnin'” along with plenty of hymns and worship music as well.
This expat life can be an extra source of stress at times when everywhere in the world has more than enough stress to go around. But the flip side of that coin is that this life has taught me and better prepared me for such a time as this.
Coronavirus didn’t do much to remind me of the impermanence of life and home and relationships. I carry that thought always at the back of my mind and tattooed on my leg. I didn’t need a worldwide pandemic to firmly plant in my heart the truth that our home in this world is never promised, but that we deeply long for a permanent one with our Creator. In times of trouble my mind and heart already ask with Moses, “teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” My life carries a base level of urgency already because I know not to take the days for granted and to make the most of relationships and opportunities here and now. As volatile as life is right now, and as much as my whole world changes sometimes by the hour, I have the immovable hope and assurance that my real home doesn’t change. My heavenly home waits for me just the same, and the parts of my life given to build up that kingdom will not go to waste—no matter what happens in the world around me.
Another huge comfort is knowing that God is not surprised by times such as these. No matter where you are trapped or stranded or locked down, God is there with you. When God appeared to Ezekiel and the Hebrew exiles, he chose to show himself as a wheel. Wherever we may be, and however far from home and family it feels, God reminds us that he is an ever-present, traveling God. He sees us. He knows us. And without moving himself, he is with us wherever we go. He was there before us and he’ll be there behind us. And that is a great comfort to this expat heart.
As I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the ground beside each creature with its four faces. This was the appearance and structure of the wheels: They sparkled like topaz, and all four looked alike. Each appeared to be made like a wheel intersecting a wheel. As they moved, they would go in any one of the four directions the creatures faced; the wheels did not change direction as the creatures went. Their rims were high and awesome, and all four rims were full of eyes all around.
When the living creatures moved, the wheels beside them moved; and when the living creatures rose from the ground, the wheels also rose. Wherever the spirit would go, they would go, and the wheels would rise along with them, because the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. When the creatures moved, they also moved; when the creatures stood still, they also stood still; and when the creatures rose from the ground, the wheels rose along with them, because the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.