A couple of weeks ago I watched one of my friend’s daughters on a playground. She bent her knees to her chest and swung across the monkey bars like it was no big deal. It made me wonder when I stopped being able to move around like that.
When you’re little, your bones are still busy fusing together and your ligaments are elastic. But soon, when sedentary moments start to outweigh the active ones, things tighten and settle into place.
Can’t the same be said about our hearts? When we’re young everyone is a potential friend. It’s easy to marvel and fresh starts are effortless. But little by little, we stop flexing those muscles and settle into our established communities and routines and work. And just like that, our malleable hearts become calcified boxes.
Expat life is a crash course in keeping your heart muscles limber. Being outside of your comfort zone, pulling up your roots every couple of years, and popping in and out of multiple lives will make sure of that.
Most expats will agree that you have to embrace each new home or you’re setting yourself up for a hard adjustment. I thought two years in Bogotá reformed me of my “comfort zone couch potato” ways. I patted myself on the back for opening up to a new culture and that I made friends even though our time together had an expiration date.
A few months ago, though, I wrote about my emotional jet-lag and how that wasn’t exactly the case. This past summer in Madrid was a harsh lesson in how hard it is to start fresh while the residue of sad goodbyes and places you miss builds up behind you. You don’t stop caring for a place, or its people, simply because you left.
These past four months in the U.S. has been a different kind of lesson in keeping an open heart. Every time I pop back in my former home, I expect to pick up where I left off. But every time, life has moved forward without me and I’m confused at all the that’s happened when I wasn’t looking. It’s former life phantom pain.
My instinct is to curl inward and cut everyone off; my rational side knows I can’t live like that. There is beauty in accumulating years and memories and stories with other people. It’s beautiful in a different way to love someone enough to acknowledge feeling forgotten or that you don’t know where you fit in and hear them say it’s ok, we’re in this for the long haul. Those are the moments that help me resist the impulse to pull back.
I heard someone say that the hardest thing in your life will be a gift once you get far enough away from it. Acknowledge the phantom pains. Then remember all the lovely moments that brought you to that place. Fight to keep your heart open and those muscles limber because there’s room in there for it all.