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June 30, 2015

"are you feeling settled yet?"

A friend who is preparing for a big move called me "brave" for making my last big transition, to marriage and to Europe. To be honest, her upcoming move is probably much more drastic than mine, not in number of kilometres, but because in her mid-twenties, she is leaving the only place she has ever lived, and leaving friends she has had since elementary school. This transition really will be a big one for her, but as you probably know, I have gone through a lot more transitions in my life than she has, and moving to Europe didn't feel particularly courageousit was just what needed to happen, if I wanted to get married. (And I did want to get married!)

I realized after this last transition, though, that I am learning about big life changes and how to handle them in a healthy way. I'm finding some common threads in my various stories of adaptation to a new place or situation. Writing back to my friend, I told her two things that I've learned about transition, and I thought I'd share them here, too. I speak mostly of changes in location, but I'm sure some of these thoughts could be helpful in other transitions, like changes in job, stage of life, or relationship.

The first thing I've learned about adjusting after transition is to expect it to take a while. Even if the first days or weeks seem exciting and you feel up for anything, you can expect that the transition will hit you hard at some point. Give yourself some time to settle in! Don't expect too much of yourself in the first weeks or months after a big change. I don't mean this in a selfish, hole-yourself-up-in-your-room-eating-Doritos kind of way, but more in a it's-normal-to-feel-a-bit-unstable-after-big-change kind of way.

I remember standing in the cafeteria at my college, perhaps the day after arriving, and having a staff member kindly inquire: "Are you feeling settled yet?" I realized she probably expected a "yes", but I was frank with her, "No, I'm not." Another person less-than-sensitively inquired of my dad, who was dropping me off and going back to South America, "Are you going to cry when you say goodbye tomorrow?" My father just looked at the inquirer and said, "Yes, I probably will." (Perhaps I get my directness from him). We both wept when we said our goodbyes, and it took a long time for me to settle in. That whole year, I never quite felt at home, but I knew that it was a good place for me to be, and that God was with me, and that made all the difference.

When I moved to Asia, the transition was enormous, and I remember bawling and not even knowing exactly why I was doing so, sometimes. For the first time in my life, I actually cried while on the phone with my parents, which I'm sure made them feel quite helpless, on the other end of the line in South America. I had a lot of difficult moments, but some of them slowly eased as I learned a new routine, became able to do errands by myself, and got to set up my own room and stock my own fridge. Of course, making friends and growing in relationships locally helped a lot, too.

Then I came to Europe, and it was a big transition again, because I was adjusting to married life (FYI, there is now a man who sleeps in my bed!) along with adjusting to a new country (with its ultra-fast store checkout lines, brusque-sounding language and few familiar faces). I wanted to "just be myself" and adjust quickly, but there were some days where I felt especially mopey. I was lonely, and when my husband came home, I literally just wanted him to wrap his arms around me for a while. The poor man was patient with my clingy moments.

I am thankful now that we kept our first month or so after arriving in Europe intentionally low key. There weren't many evening plans or high expectations. My husband went back to his regular job during the daytime, but I didn't start doing freelance work; I spent time writing thank-you notes, organizing cupboards and learning to cook in a new country. During my first month I had a terrible cold, lost my voice for about five days, and had a lot of emotional processing to do. My body was probably confused with the number of time zone shifts it had done in the last two months, and I had crazy dreams and trouble sleeping. For these reasons and others, I was glad we hadn't planned a busy first month. We had our first Christmas together during that first month, and kept it somewhat quiet as well.

My belief in taking transition slowly was reinforced when I spoke to a couple here who dove head-long into a significant commitment in their local fellowship early in their time here. Today they are still struggling with that commitment, but it is difficult to back out of what others have come to expect of them. Seven months into our time here, our schedule is fuller, I am doing quite a bit of freelance work, the requests for our help or time come more frequently, and our "people we'd like to have over" list keeps growing longer. I'm often thankful that I had about three months without as many commitments, so that we could figure out a few basics of marriage and life together, before pledging myself to much outside our home. If you're going through upheaval, and can afford to build in an intentional transition period, I highly recommend it.

What I've realized is that if the greyish transition clouds don't rise after a reasonable amount of time, perhaps your problem is deeper. But in my last move, I felt a definite shift after a few months. The moments of blubbering and confusion lessened. I could see personal growth. When I passed a simple but official language test, and this gave me courage to speak a bit more to strangers while out and about. When my husband was sick and I went to our Sunday group on my own, and I realized that it wasn't just my husband's fellowship was mine, too! When a new place starts to have familiar places, faces, foods....then I realize that I'm settling in.

Speaking of familiar things, other than affording time to settle in, my other "settling in" tip is that finding things in my new place that remind me of my old place helps me feel settled. Of course, you can do this by bringing with pictures or mementos from your old home, and I always do bring some of those along. Or if you're transitioning into marriage, keeping a hobby that you really enjoyed in your single years might help you as you change life stages. But you can also find new things or activities in the new place or stage, that remind you of what you had before.

For example, in Asia I occasionally let myself splurge on little things or activities that gave me some culture or transition stress escape. I even made a list in the back of my daytimer of these things. One of the nicest activities for me (which I only did a couple of times) was going to one of the five star hotels in our city by myself, ordering the $10 Western breakfast buffet, and sitting with my laptop and notebook, writing, reading the Word, or praying. It was cathartic for me; I wrote this post from there. On my dusty walk home from work, sometimes I would buy a bag of gummi bears, salted California almonds or a UK-brand popsicle from the import shop, because they added a little stability to my very different world. I read an article by a lady who always missed her piano when living abroad, but as she noted, "Pianos don't fit well with a nomadic lifestyle." But after about ten years of that, she finally bought a piano, because it brought a lot of pleasure and familiarity to her to be able to play the piano to relax, even if it seemed like an expensive "extra". In Europe, I noticed that once I started finding freelance work again, it busied my mind and also gave me a sense of familiarity in a new world. It helped me to feel stable, employing my skills in an area where I had years of experience, while I was facing a steep learning curve in so many others (new marriage, new language, new house, new country, new friends).

At the moment, I am feeling as settled as I can be expected, I think! When we discuss the possibility of moving yet again, and the future is so unknown, I feel less settled. But for the time being, the transition anxiety has plateaued, and
(1) giving myself some time/cutting myself some slack during transition, and 
(2) finding some familiar foods, activities or items amidst all the newness 
helps me to adjust to change in a healthy way.

Of course, the best transition tool I know is to:
dwell in the secret place of the Most High,
abide under the shadow of the Almighty. 
say of the Lord, 'He is my refuge and my fortress;
My God, in Him I will trust.'
Surely He shall deliver you...
He shall cover you with His feathers,
And under His wings you shall take refuge;
His truth shall be your shield and buckler.
Because you have made the Lord...
your dwelling place, No evil shall befall you,
Nor shall any plague come near your dwelling;
For He shall give His angels charge over you,
To keep you in all your ways.
All these earthly transitions are temporary ones, and our lasting roots must be dug down deep in our omnipresent, omnipotent God. He is our dwelling place, no matter where we abide geographically. Sometimes listening to Psalm 91 on repeat is just what I need to focus my mind on my unchanging One, especially in times of change. There is no settledness on earth without the peace that things are settled between my God and myself.

But assuming that you are dwelling in Him, it can also help to speak in practical terms during times of upheaval. I hope this bit of earthly transition advice might help someone who has just gone through change to remember that when asked, "Are you feeling settled yet?" (or "Hast du dich gut eingelebt?") it's OK to be honest and answer, "No, I'm not!" or "No, I haven't." It's normal to need some time to settle in, and some familiar earthly comforts can help ease the jolting on this earthly journey toward our eternal Home. Gute Reise!

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