I walked past the stack of empty, folded boxes on my front porch, out the gate onto my quiet street, tried not to think about how much was left to unpack. My two older kids ran ahead of me. Eric, my youngest, lagged behind. I grabbed his hand, for him and for me. We were looking for people to meet, hoping to find neighbors enjoying the late afternoon not-quite-so-hot temperatures.
This part is hard for me, though I’ve done it my whole life.
I recently moved from my home of 10 years on the teeny, tiny and crowded island of Tarakan to the interior of the nearby vast island of Borneo. Indonesia. It's much-more-spread-out town of Palangkaraya wraps its way around the mighty Kahayan River (pic above).
Palangkaraya has so much of what I’d forgotten Tarakan has very little of—space. The roads are a bit wider. Many of the houses—even the smallest and most primitive—have yards filled with tall palm trees. I have one of those, too, the biggest yard I’ve ever had, filled with fruit trees and coconut trees and space for the kids to run after each other using badminton rackets as swords. We’ve been given a bigger house, too, which means my kids can make war on one side of the house and I can nap peacefully on the other side.
At first—and still sometimes—all the space felt strange, like I’ve left “real Indonesia” for something not quite as genuine. Where are the tiny “mouse streets” as they’re called here? Where are the cramped markets with friendly people selling cinnamon sticks next to green bananas? And what I really mean is, where are the people who will become our community? My friends? My kids’ friends?
Though my last town of Tarakan was crowded and hot and noisy, I learned to love my Tarakan house on its busy street, and the fact that I could keep track of my little kids no matter where I was in the small house. I could hear my neighbor calling for me from inside my kitchen. Fresh spinach was a short walk down the road, some of our closest friends a walk up the hill.
In some ways, the lack of space was healing for me. I grew up feeling like there was too much space around me at times. Moving from place to place. Lonely first walks to new school after new school. I learned how to bridge the space as quickly as possible. How to be the person I needed to be to befriend whoever would have me.
Then 10 years ago, I moved to a tiny island on the other side of the world from all that I’d worked hard to figure out. At times, the close quarters and painful circumstances made me want to crawl into a closet and hide. (My closets in that house were teeny tiny, too…I probably wouldn’t have fit anyway.) Then you add in having three little kids and my world, at times, could be suffocatingly tiny. Plus, I stopped moving, which meant I stopped having that natural reset button that could be the good part of moving around.
But I feel like I found myself during those 10 years on the tiny island.
No, I feel like I was forced to find myself, like all those tiny spaces created by culture stress and team issues and early motherhood stripped me of my regular old ways of living life, and left me with this too-long hidden self.
And then other hard things happened. And I figured out that when I’m backed into a corner, it makes me want come out (after a brief pity party) fists up, fighting for what I value. For the first time, I fought, using my vulnerability and my courage, which were strangely the same thing.
And then I figured out that the more I showed that self, the closer I got to others…in the best way possible.
But then I moved. To a place with a lot of space.
So, I’m trying to shrink that space as I visit my neighbors. And it’s hard. Though I’ve lived in this country for a decade, I could hardly understand what the young woman I met recently was saying to me. She was mixing the language I know—Indonesian—with her native tongue, which sounds so different in this central part of Borneo, this land of a thousand languages. I forgot the young woman’s name almost as soon as she said it—Mama Something-or-other.
I stumbled over my own name, too. In Tarakan, I was Ibu Rebecca, or just Rebecca, to a few, just Reb. Here I’m supposed to call myself Mama Evan (mother of my firstborn). Though I’m proud to be known as my kids’ mom, losing my lifelong name feels weird. And yet it also feels strangely familiar, like I’ve lost part of who I am even as I try to make a friend.
The kids are better at this than I am. They kicked the soccer ball with her son in the yard, running after the boy’s puppy, eating up all that space with their playing and laughter and easy friend-making.
So, I go back to the lessons I learned in Tarakan, that it’s OK to stumble. It’s even OK to fail. It’s OK to be a burden sometimes.
That though I’m sweaty and confused and stumbling, I have tremendous worth. That I’m often strongest when I’m weakest. I’m often bravest when I’m feeling my smallest.
That just as what I’ve always known to be true—that I need others—it’s also true that they could use a Rebecca Hopkins in their life, even if they have no idea how to pronounce it.
I ran out of questions to ask my neighbor and moved onto the next neighbor, stepping over cracked concrete to meet another Mama-Something-or-other who I didn’t really understand all that well yet, who certainly doesn’t understand this foreigner who just moved into her neighborhood.
A few minutes later, the kids skipped back to our big house with the big yard, their shadows stretched long behind them. I took a deep breath, trying to enjoy the space I’ve been given. I’ll have more afternoons for walks and talks like these, for friendships that grow from teeny tiny seeds in foreign-to-me soil.
There’s more space for me, too, for this me that’s growing bigger, that’s getting better at showing up no matter what happens.