December 5, 2013

Miles and Miles and Milestones

It seems as though nearly every time I am prompted to write a new blog entry, it is because I have come to some peaceful, warm little discovery that I am among people who care about me and that Sweden truly is a place I can call a second home. But if I were to be completely honest, my actual experience is more like an overwhelming rollercoaster of either feeling totally out of place and wanting nothing more than to board a plane home or, as many of you have read about several times, receiving gentle confirmations that I do belong here in my own small way—that there might be a cozy little corner of Sweden that feels just as close to my heart as all the other places I love most in the world.

Both kinds of feelings have deepened in intensity over the past week or two, and they have begun to volley back and forth within shorter periods of time. It feels like I spend half the day half-tempted to go find a sketchy clinic that will take one of my kidneys in exchange for the fortune it would cost to fly home early and the other half feeling overwhelmed with joy that I can be here at this moment in my life, learning Swedish (and plenty of other things that I didn't bargain for, for better or worse). Today was such a day. Some friends noticed that I haven't been acting like myself lately. One girl asked me after everyone else had left the lunch table if there was something I needed to talk about. I almost burst into tears even though all I could really manage to say was that I missed my family, that I have had a bit of trouble sleeping, and that I usually carry my stress in my stomach. And lately that means I have stomachaches all the time.

None of that seems so profound, so shattering. I have had harder trials in my life. But I had to fight tears when I was trying to explain myself to this friend and it was almost even harder keeping myself from crying as I briskly walked over to the school library. I guess I figured I would either a) be safe weeping among books or b) keep my cool as I remembered how much I love reading. (If that sounds nerdy to you, that's because it is.) But it worked. I held it together and stayed on campus to do some reading assignments. About an hour later, one of my teachers from allmän invited me to join the class for a meeting they were having. I have been mostly attending lectures with Expo lately, so I don't see a lot of the old allmän gang anymore. I felt kind of ashamed. The last thing I wanted to do was to explain why I have been gone, which happens to involve an embarrassing combination of being with Expo and staying-at-home-eating-chocolate-in-my-bed because I can't pull myself together for the day.

My fears were allayed as I entered the classroom and Maria handed me gingerbread cookies. Everyone was drinking from juice boxes (I picked pear, a flavor they use way more here than in the States) and laughing at a Freudian slip Tomas had made as he began explaining our assignment for the day. We have been split up into groups that represent countries in the United Nations. I am one of the delegates from Russia. When this project first started a few weeks ago, it seemed like I was the only person ever doing any work. I gave a spontaneous presentation in front of the class about a dense climate-change document we had read, I looked up facts about the food situation in Russia, I organized our group binder, and I spent way too long looking up words so as to understand a Swedish write-up about Russia's political positions. It was frustrating because I am not the one who actually needs this particular education, and yet I was the only one fulfilling the group responsibilities. I guess I can't talk now because I basically bailed on the class after that, so now we Russians find ourselves in a quandary. Our group leader dropped the class just today, I believe, and all the other group members feel too overwhelmed to carry on with the task of representing our country in the meeting next week.

In spite of my limitations, I was nominated to give the talk explaining Russia's positions to the rest of the class; I mean, uh, the UN. Everyone expressed confidence in my ability to do this. And I have to admit, folks, I have come a long way since arriving here. I have grown more comfortable making spontaneous (i.e. not-laboriously-thought-out-before-raising-my-hand) comments in class, I can understand and participate in lunch-table conversation, I've given prayers and testimonies and even a talk in church, I can ask for help and directions without fear that I won't understand the answer given, I can talk on the phone with Swedes (that used to terrify me), and I've even had some arguments in Swedish now. That's a milestone. When the Expo class first returned after their seven-week internships, many remarked that my speech was quicker, more natural, and I was using more advanced vocabulary. I think I actually did a victory jump in the air upon receiving this news. My time and tears and turmoil have not been for naught!

So things are here-and-there. Up and down. 'Round and 'round. But I have found that traveling is kind of like that. You grow in miles. You are pulled out of not only your comfort zone but almost all your reference points. You are not yourself in relation to the familiar things: parents, siblings, long-time friends, familiar streets. It's like being alone with yourself in a sense. There is an element of discovery in that, a sense of wonder. Sometimes the peace I find in it is all-consuming. Other times, it just feels like loneliness wrapped in prettier packaging. But I'm trying to learn, or maybe just remember, that unexpected lovelinesses come out of loneliness. I wouldn't ever ask for some of the heartaches I've had here, but I likewise wouldn't have dared to dream of such rich blessings as the ones I've received since my arrival in late August.

Some nights I fall asleep while my thoughts spindle out into a long, unfinished prayer of gratitude.


  1. Beautiful Richelle. The second-to-last paragraph reminds me of Joni Mitchell's Blue.

    1. Thank you, Jamie! Such a compliment, especially coming from you!