Everything around me is different. The tall, coniferous trees at the edge of the conservation area marking the western boundary of our rental property belie the truth that I am nowhere near home. At a glance, they could pass for a species native to Ontario, which is the first thing my son pointed out when he saw them towering over the yard. Their slender, skyward-stretching trunks mimic the palm trees that thrive here in Central Florida, but instead of the iconic spreading leaves that show up on most every postcard sent from this sunkissed state, the branches on these trees are covered in unusually long needles with small pockets of seed cones mostly hidden from sight.
There’s a small lawn sprawled out between the house and the trees, but again, it only looks like the kind of lawns that I’ve walked barefoot across since I took my first steps. In truth, the turf here is thick and coarse and crunches underfoot, more straw than grass. In a cardboard box in my parents’ home, there’s a photograph depicting myself as a toddler sitting on the lawn in a baby blue jumper with my hands in the air and a look of disgust on my face. When we were young, our family would sprawl out on the floor of our living room and sift through this box of photos and when we came across this one, without fail, my mother would laugh as she told us about how much I hated grass when I was a baby. But that was the soft Kentucky Bluegrass of home and not the rough St Augustine variety that has adapted to the warm, humid environment that I’m currently enjoying with my family this week—which is to say, I really don’t know what my one-year-old self had to complain about.
Around the edge of the pool is a mesh screen enclosure that arches over the speckled white deck. When the kids were young, I told them that it was to keep the alligators out—a joke that I’m certain has been adopted by many-a-father vacationing here with young children. While I imagine the screen would discourage the entry of these prehistoric survivors, it’s more likely designed as a barrier to bugs and to diffuse the harsh midday sun. Moments ago, my daughter spotted a small lizard clinging to the outside of the screen, keeping an eye on us and perhaps waiting for a splash of water to quench its thirst. The other day, she coaxed one of these creatures onto her hand, which it took as an invitation to scurry up her arm, resulting in a screech and a flick of the arm and an unexpected experience of flight for her temporary reptilian pet.
Beyond the enclosure, the pearly white plumage of a great egret stands out against the otherwise dull colouring of the marsh where it has come to feed. It’s long, thin legs lift up slowly and methodically as it spears its bill into the water in search of something to eat. There is a little blue heron on the other side of the shallow pond, wading around in its own way, while a pair of black vultures soar overhead in broad circles, scouting out the area for some lunch of their own.
The wildlife is different here. The flora is different. The sun feels different. The air smells different. The road signs are different, the restaurants different, the accents different, the currency different—even the commercials that pop up on television as we gather in the living room to watch a late-night family movie with bowls of popcorn in hand are different. Everything around me is different.
And yet I am the same.
Even with all of the new sights and sounds and smells, all of the new experiences and the new memories I’m creating, all day long I am reminded that, wherever I go, I bring myself.
One of the gifts of travel is the experience of being transported almost magically away from everything that is familiar. Of course, there are all kinds of people who have racked up far more miles than myself, people who are far more familiar with the world of booking flights, arranging accommodations, and navigating currency exchanges, but all the same, I have to acknowledge the very real privilege I’ve had to visit as many different parts of this wide world of ours as I have. Every place I’ve been has its own history, its own culture, and has left its own imprint on my soul. And, at least in my experience, every new place I visit helps me appreciate the other more permanent place that I affectionately refer to as home.
But the thing that’s striking me this week is that I cannot truly disconnect from the familiar, not actually. I cannot truly leave home, because wherever I go, I am right there with me. Sure, I can leave my heavy sweaters and winter jacket at home when I fly south in mid-February, but I can’t seem to leave what one of this morning’s Divine Hours prayers referred to as ‘faithless fears and worldly anxieties.’ No, they found their way into my carry-on bag and have been my unwanted companions for the duration of our time away.
And fears and anxieties weren’t the only things to stuff themselves in, either, and that in spite of our limited, discount-airline baggage allowance. As it turns out, all of the things I would have loved to leave behind have followed me here. I thought I had zipped up my luggage in time to prevent my constantly swirling mind from entering, but here it is sitting in the deck chair beside me, soaking in the late afternoon sun. I did my best to tip toe out of the house before my bruised self-esteem noticed I was leaving, but sure enough, it’s right over there, sipping away on a tumbler filled with crushed ice and Lipton sweet tea.
How is it that everything around me can change so dramatically, while everything inside of me remains the same? How is it that I can be surrounded by warmth and beauty and serenity and still be fighting the knock-down, drag-out battles that I fight every day at home?
It’s because wherever I go, I can’t help but bring my whole, loveable, frustrating self along for the ride. While this is certainly the case in the context of travel, the real epiphany for me this week has more to do with how this is also bound to be the case in my life as a whole.
This matters because, for the first time in a very long time, I find myself at a vocational crossroads. My curiosity about what lies around the corner for me is growing with each passing week, as is my curiosity about who I will be in the new environment that I will one day call home. I imagine that someone who has changed jobs numerous times, or who has switched up careers entirely, might not understand what I’m getting at here, but committing fully half of my life to one group of people, to one organization, has completely melded my sense of self with what I do vocationally. Who I am and what I do have been intertwined, like two sets of fingers locked into one another, for the entirety of my adult life. This melding has made it quite challenging for me to imagine a path forward that is different from the path I’ve recently left. And so my mornings have been starting out with a daily invitation for God to gently—and with as much care and compassion as possible—pull these two aspects of my identity apart in service of whatever new opportunities lie ahead.
In time, I will find myself in a new environment surrounded by new people and with new horizons spread out in front of me. My tasks will be different, my goals will be different, and even the places I walk and gather and pray will be different. But as I’ve discovered here in this Sunshine State, even when everything around me is different, it will still be me who is living that new life. There are bound to be parts of myself that I will wish I had left behind, but at the end of the day, I have faith that it will be a healthy and vitalized version of myself that opens the door and crosses the threshold into this next season of life. Because, yes, it is true that wherever I go, I bring myself, but it is equally true that, wherever I go, God goes there with me.
As I’ve been reflecting on all of this and more, the words of David from Psalm 139 have been echoing in my heart and mind, reminding me that God’s good presence goes with me through any and all of life’s transitions. So I’m doing my best to adopt the baffled king’s questions and conclusions as my own:
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.