A few months ago my piano teacher asked me to pick out a song in the key of B flat major. We are working through the jazz chords, and the best way to understand each chord is by learning a song in the corresponding key. My search for a tune in B flat led me to “Rocket Man” by Elton John. It caught me off guard how deep of an emotional connection I felt with the song.
“Rocket Man” is literally about an astronaut who has to leave his family to go to work, but between the lines, in the nostalgic language of the chords, I hear a song about distance, longing, and a sense of otherness–all things I can identify with. Having moved many times in my life, both cross-country and overseas, my identity was developed on a platform of comings and goings, of being dropped into foreign environments and asked to adapt, to live, to make new connections and then to leave again. In time, I developed an internal world as elaborate as the Barbie houses I created in my basement as a kid, a world that remained richly reliable and comforting despite the myriad of external changes in my environment.
The best times were living in places where we were all foreigners together. Whether ex-pats living overseas or communities quickly formed on military bases, our lives were all in a perpetual state of passing, far away from our families and native homes. This was our bond. As Elton John sings, I’m not the man they think I am at home, oh no no no. Or, as Kathleen Jamison writes in her book The Empathy Exams, “I was enjoying the easy commonality of being a foreigner among foreigners: None of us are where we usually are! I said. We are lost together!”
About four years ago, after a decade of moving cross country with the military and in the midst of bringing our son home from China, my family and I settled into the small community of Virginia Beach. We moved into a neighborhood close to the ocean with quaint streets and eclectic homes and great schools. It was the first time in forever I was faced with the option of growing roots.
Within a few weeks of moving here, I realized that a large portion of the people in my neighborhood had grown up here. Their parents lived a few blocks away and their best friends from high school lived behind them. Their siblings lived across the street and they dressed their toddlers in smocks and loafers. Having just moved from northern California and fresh off the plane from China with a nineteen-month-old baby with a mohawk, I felt like a freak. It was easy to settle into a place where everyone was coming and going, but incorporating myself into a setting where relationships and histories were deeply established felt daunting. So, I did what a lifetime of experience had taught me to do. I hunkered down into my own life, into myself, and tried to just forget about it.
Just about a year ago, a feeling of pure panic struck me, realizing that we were never leaving this place. I felt stuck and stifled. I asked a realtor to start showing us new houses because I figured that if we couldn’t move to a different state or country, at least we could move to a different part of town.
After months of searching, however, we found nothing, and it was clear that God was asking me to dig in to the place He’d already planted me. I raised my hands in resignation.
This past spring, like the little green tips of bulbs popping their heads through soil in early March, I suddenly felt something rising. I felt as though the dormancy I’d experienced in the recent past was yielding to new growth, tangible growth–not growth that is unseen–but the kind that is palpable and visible. All of the simple and nondescript interactions with neighbors and acquaintances were developing into something rich and pleasurable, and it was seeming to happen overnight. New neighbors we met were asking us, Wow, you’ve been here for four years? How have we not met you yet? It seemed we were officially out of hibernation. Something had finally clicked.
Can I come? is typically a question I would rather die than ask. I would rather stand alone outside of the party than feel alone at the party. As the new kid at school, I sat by myself at lunch instead of trying to join the group. It has been one of my core coping mechanisms, a kind of false identity, seeing myself as the astronaut who is always on the outside, always searching for something else, never quite at home. But time, God’s grace, and a hankering sense of longing in my soul have shown me that my desire to belong outweighs my desire to stand alone. Things are changing. As much as I crave my independence and individuality, the truth is that I am far more terrified of never fitting in.
A few months ago, a new friend of mine asked me, “Will you be my 5 o’clock friend? Every mother knows the dreaded hours of 3pm-6pm, when the kids are melting down and the spouse isn’t home and you are trying to manage the general chaos and fatigue of the day while figuring out what’s for dinner. The 5 o’clock friend enters the mess with you. She makes you a cocktail. The 5 o’clock friend doesn’t shame you for wanting to start drinking at 3pm, and she is content to let the kids run rampant while you sip and talk about your day. I said, “Heck, yes! I’m your girl.”
God has graciously brought a couple of 5 o’clock friends into my life–women with whom the question Can I come? is not fear-inducing but exciting. Nowadays, I frequently find myself reaching for my phone to send them a text. Do you want to come over? Can I come over? Will you make me a drink? Happy hour at 4pm! Mercy, hospitality, exhortation and bartending are our spiritual gifts. Together we are redeeming our inner astronauts, our inner freaks, one sweet cocktail at a time.
Elizabeth (Libby) Kurz holds a BS in Nursing and an MFA in Creative Writing. Her work has been published in The Poet’s Billow and Relief Journal. After years of moving cross-country with the US Air Force, she now resides on the coast of Virginia with her family. When she’s not reading, writing, and keeping tabs on her three kids, she works as a registered nurse in the cardiac operating room. She is a self-proclaimed coffee snob, wino, and beach bum, who appreciates finding meaning in the ordinary moments of life. She occasionally writes at www.libbykurz.com.