I lived in southern Spain for almost three years, from May 2017 to March 2020. During those years, I never left the country. For some expats, maybe that doesn’t sound odd or hard; for others, it will sound both odd and hard. It certainly wasn’t something I’d done before. When we lived in Morocco for just sixteen months, I flew back for two weddings and had siblings come visit us, too. So during our stint in Spain, homesickness throbbed in a new way. In my bouts of self-pity, I felt exiled.
But during that “exile,” I learned a few things about maintaining and/or changing relationships from across an ocean.
Comparison is not my friend.
Neither is assuming peoples’ motives for staying in touch, or not.
You never know where new relationships will blossom or which relationships will grow sturdier, the friction of distance strengthening the muscles of friendship.
You need real-life, real-time, friends.
Voxer and WhatsApp help. Especially when you can hear your friend or family member’s voice.
Email, texting, voice-messaging, snail mail are good when they let you cut straight to the heart of life.
Email, texting, voice-messaging, snail mail are bad when you let them overtake the day and community right before your eyes.
I learned, or am learning, all these exercises through workout after workout. And though I still have long-distance relationships I value and maintain, I was ready for the workouts to be less intense once we moved back to our home community in March.
March 12, that is. In the middle of a pandemic. One day before travel from Europe got a whole lot more complicated. Three days before Spain went into lockdown. Twelve days, more or less, before Delaware’s stay-at-home order took effect.
My long-distance friendship skills stayed at the forefront of my life. I didn’t mind at first. We were too busy sorting, unpacking, and moving. But in a couple weeks, I grew lonely, and I began to resent how much I was forced to use those skills.
Three years away wasn’t enough? My longed-for family reunion had to be canceled? How could I even focus on the community right in front of me when I wasn’t allowed to be a part of it? How could I keep my brain from spiraling in on itself under isolation? And under those questions: Was I being punished, for making idols out of other people? Why me? Couldn’t God just give me this one thing? Digging down still deeper: Does He love me? Is He good? Can I trust Him?
Once I know those are really the questions, I can begin to seek the answers. I can remember that “the Lord will perfect that which concerns me” (Psalm 138:8). I can realize that just because something is painful doesn’t mean it’s not a blessing (see Mary, the mother of Jesus). I can cling to the assurance that all God does, He does from love.
Then I can thank God for the long-distance friendship muscles I developed through years of working them out overseas. Instead of resenting how much hard exercise I’m doing, I can marvel at the way I can work out without breaking so much of a sweat. I can find new exercises to create relationship–Zoom, chats outside at a distance–and take more advantage of the old ones–letters, texts, voice messages. I can look at the community right in front of my eyes, my nuclear family. How can I pour extra attention on them?
I still long to give hugs, to sit close, to hold my friends’ babies. I long to talk and laugh and sing, in person, without worry and fear. I long to chat with my husband over wings at Applebees instead of eating Chick-fil-A in the car. I long to take my children to the library, the zoo, the store.
But that’s not yet. We’re in the now. So now, I will choose to believe that God is good, that He loves me, that I can trust Him. I will love the community I have and value all the ways I can reach out to other communities.
I will remember that we’re still linked, even at a social distance. And I will choose to hope that the workouts will make us stronger in the end.
This post was written as part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to read the next post in this series “Together, Apart”.
Graphic by Phoenix Feathers Calligraphy