Carrying Our Homes
She bounds down the concrete steps in her almost-two-year-old glory: wearing a backward t-shirt with the tag jutting out below her chin and a bright pink tutu over her pants. Her ponytail has migrated to the side of her head, sprouting like a horizontal palm tree. Thanks to the unsolicited comment from a neighbor tinkering nearby in her garden, my daughter also has remnants of a chocolate snack smeared across her cheek.
We head outside most afternoons, where I try not to rush her on the way to the park. My daughter has recently become interested in all things nature, so our walks take longer than someone sans-toddler as she stops to inspect an anthill and water running through a storm drain or picks wildflowers and throws discarded trash in a nearby dumpster.
This time though, she makes a beeline past our nosy neighbor to the side of our house, where an entire ecosystem resides in the shaded row of evergreen trees. Among the bed of pine needles and patches of overgrown weeds live the current object of her fascination: thick, slimy garden snails.
She does not hesitate to plunge her hand into the grass and comes up with a snail the size of her palm. I crouch down next to her and swallow any disgust I feel observing her wipe snail goo on her tutu, then use that same hand to brush her hair out of her eyes.
“Look here.” I point to the snail’s shell. “That’s its home. Snails carry their home on their backs and take it wherever they go.”
I struggle to think of any more information I can impart, but my snail knowledge ends there.
No matter, she has moved on, dropping her slimy molluscan friend into a discarded yogurt bucket and continuing her backyard exploration.
The snail is fixed to the plastic container, unmoving and undisturbed even after being plucked from its natural habitat by an overzealous toddler. Its coiled shell makes me think of the time when I received a cookie cutter in the shape of a house from a friend. Included with the gift was a short note mentioning how they had a hunch that “home” was an ambiguous thing for us these days. It was the first time I could put a word to the adrift feeling following me.
My friend was right: home was ambiguous.
We’re an expat family, living away from home for the past eight years, so we are no strangers to homesickness. My husband has carried the title of “refugee” for the entirety of our relationship. Due to his faith, he fled his home country to escape persecution. Now he jumps through hoops too small to fit through and bumps up against barrier after barrier, hoping a country will reach out its arms to him.
Ordinary fathers shoulder the weight of bills, mortgages, and college tuition. My husband, though, is forced to sign his name with his fingerprint each month. He carries a refugee identification card made out of flimsy laminated cardstock. Too big to fit in a wallet, its inconvenient size symbolizes the precariousness of his status in this foriegn country. You are not wanted here. Your presence is temporary. It is an exasperating reminder of how quickly he could be ripped apart from his wife and child, both of whom hold more powerful passports.
So each time I punch out gingerbread cookies during the holiday season with the gifted cookie cutter, the rows of little brown houses puffing up in the oven become a physical reminder of the ambiguity of home for our family.
It is the heartbeat of our prayers to one day enter a season where our daughter can grow up around grandparents and cousins, attend birthday parties, enjoy holidays with extended family, and worship alongside friends. It is our dream to put down roots, resettle, and rest.
And yet God has had other plans.
The decision to live oceans away from family was not made by choice but is one that was thrust upon us by travel bans, dead ends, and policymakers. It was not in our plan to get married and start a family as foreigners in a country that did not belong to us. With my husband’s refugee status and to avoid fracturing our family, we have had to stay put until doors open for him to resettle elsewhere.
My daughter drops a second snail into the bucket and I look closer at the swirl of their shells—their only home permanently on their backs.
How do snails do it? How do they carry their homes?
Snails must know their presence is not wanted in gardens, that they are a nuisance and a parasite. They must know of the predatory birds circling the air, eyeing them as a good snack. They must understand that when summer arrives, the sun will blaze so hot that any moisture they need to survive will dry up. Instead, they move about their days at glacial speeds, composed and unhurried. How does that not rattle them as it does me?
But then my daughter curls up next to me on the steps, her head face down in my lap and the snails in the bucket by our feet. With her voice muffled by my pants, she tells me she’s “so cozy,” something she says when she feels happy.
These ordinary days are adding up to something. Perhaps, they are adding up to something called home.
As parents, we carry the hard on our backs in the sacrifices we make for our family and in the awkward way we guide our children through the hostilities of the world. But we also carry goodness, as evidenced in the discovery of the snails.
My daughter, for whom I often worry about the impact of my husband’s displacement, carries with her kisses on skinned knees, dance parties in the kitchen while the soup simmers, and bowls of strawberry ice cream in the heat of summer. On her back are many homes carried across oceans, and the assurance that many people love her in many places.
Remarkable what a snail can teach us. Home is not only a building with a picket fence. It is not just a passport we carry or an identity forced upon us. Home is what we pour into each other, the little moments adding up to the big moments. It is what God promises us: to work all things for our good, to strengthen us with the power of the Holy Spirit until we arrive at our eternal home.
All of this is true.
Even when uncertainty roars.
Even when homesickness strikes.
Even when our hearts stretch across the world.
These everyday moments shape the meaning of home—the good, the hard, and the heavenly.
Home is what we carry with us wherever we go.
Sarah Bahiraei hopped a plane to Turkey in 2014 with a one-way ticket in hand. She lives there with her husband, Afshin, and daughter, Esther. She writes about faith, immigration, and living in the in-between on her blog onefootonboth.com.
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