Late last August, we left the Land of the Midnight Sun to put down temporary roots in the Land of the Morning Calm. Going from Alaska to South Korea was a crash course in contrast and extremes, and marked our 21st move as an Air Force family.
Shortly after we arrived, I took a walking tour in the town of Itaewon, located just outside the gates of US Army Garrison Yongsan in the center of Seoul. This international shopping district, with its winding streets and narrow alleys, is dotted with shops, vendors peddling their wares, and eateries featuring diverse cuisine from around the world.
It was a beautiful day to become acquainted with Korean culture and explore my new corner of the world. But my thoughts were divided, and my emotions as jumbled and chaotic as the unfamiliar lettering on the awnings above the storefronts.
I was struggling with lingering jet lag, and the firehose of newness, unfamiliarity and adjustment that often accompany a permanent change of station— especially in a foreign country. I was also battling separation anxiety from our recent departure from the 49th state.
We had grown to love Alaska. She puts a spell on you and it doesn’t take long before you’re smitten. If you’ve been there, you know what I mean. It’s some of the most beautiful land in all of creation— with clear, crisp air, jaw-dropping mountain ranges, dancing winter skies, ice-blue glaciers, and ubiquitous wildlife. For 23 months, we piled up adventure upon adventure in the glorious Last Frontier, savoring every opportunity.
She charmed us with her majesty, wooed us with her natural beauty, captivated A Certain Flyboy of mine, and eventually, captured even this Southern girl’s heart.
So, as thrilled as we were for the upcoming adventure awaiting us in Korea, the departure from Alaska was emotional and painful. The people and the place had become precious to us, and we reluctantly said farewell.
I’ve learned that it’s possible to simultaneously mourn what is lost and rejoice for what’s ahead. Both emotions can occupy the same space in your conflicted heart. The ebbs and flows of this life can be jarring. The constant stream of hellos and goodbyes make your heart both tender and tough. Sometimes, moving is like having to break up with someone you still love.
You know it’s for the best.
You know it’s time to go.
But your heart really wants to stay.
But stay is not what we do in this military life.
and we grow,
and if we do it right, we’re better off in the end.
Sometimes, even a veteran military spouse, of more than three decades, needs a reminder of that principle. On that warm September day, while wandering the streets of Itaewon, I got one.
As I was taking in the myriad sights and sounds, I glanced to my right and a sign above a restaurant caught my attention. The three words on the placard called out to me from the brilliant blue sky overhead, offering a gentle nudge of admonition:
Be Here Now
It was a simple sign beckoning customers into the eatery, but it spoke profound truth to the emotions spinning around in my head and tearing at my heart.
Be Here Now.
Not where you were. Not where you want to be. Not where you think you should be.
Be present. Be engaged. Be open. Be grateful. Be happy.
Be Here Now.
One of the keys to finding joy in this nomadic journey we call military life, is contentment. Intentional contentment —borne from gratitude and attitude— and we have control over both.
At each duty assignment, we have the capacity to be happy, to make someone else happy, to make an impact, to make a difference. We get to choose how we’re going to play it. We get to decide if we’re all in, or if we opt out. I would encourage the former. Merely marking time waiting for tomorrow robs you of the possibilities of today. Life is too precious and too fleeting for that.
I needed an attitude check and I got one in that trio of words. Oh yes, my heart still catches when I see photos of Alaska, but it’s with gratitude for the gift and blessing of what was ours for a season.
We’re six months into our amazing Korean adventure. We have the privilege of being stationed here at a pivotal time in the history of this country. Peace seems like a possibility for the first time since the 1953 Armistice between North and South Korea. And that is an amazing prospect for all freedom-loving people.
I’m exploring the land, and embracing the culture, the warmth of the people, and the opportunity to see and experience things about which others can only dream. This place has much to offer, much to teach, and much to cherish. My heart is open to it all.
I’m Here Now.
We recently moved from the Land of the Midnight Sun to the Land of the Morning Calm. It was — as is often the case in this frenetic military life — a quick-turn assignment with no time for leave between our Alaska departure and our arrival in South Korea. So, when my Air Force spouse—affectionately known as A Certain Flyboy —was sent stateside for a few weeks of training, I packed a bag and set out to soak up a little of the Sweet Land of Liberty. The agenda was ambitious: spend precious time with friends and loved ones on both coasts; attend a football game at my alma mater; do a little work for God and country; contribute to the national economy through retail therapy; take in a calligraphy class, a concert, a play, a walk by the water, and a run in the park; and consume copious amounts of Chick-Fil-A.
My whirlwind six-state swing was bookended with stops in The Golden State to visit my SoCal family. For more than 30 years, our nomadic milFam journey has ushered us in and out of California on the way to duty stations and new assignments throughout the Pacific, so I’ve said many goodbyes in concourses and curbside drop-offs at Los Angeles International Airport.
A few days ago, as we prepared to board yet another flight to take us halfway around the world, I thought back to our 1993 departure from LAX to Okinawa, Japan. It was our first overseas assignment and emotions were high as we approached the airport overloaded with luggage and expectations for our new life in a foreign land. My parents and my sister’s family walked us through the terminal, as you could do back then, to say a sad farewell to Uncle Cruiser and Aunt Sissy. My young nephew —with his shining eyes, crooked smile, and mop of red hair—held tightly to my hand as we walked through the concourse. This Disney-obsessed 3-year-old had been binge-watching Mary Poppins on a continuous loop (before that was officially a thing), so his pensive inquiry made sense to an impressionable young mind, and it melted my tender ole heart:
Michael tugged on my hand, looked up with furrowed brow and said:
“How long will you be gone, Aunt Sissy? Will you come back when the wind changes?”
His words brought a smile —and then, the waterworks.
My Poppins-loving nephew is grown and married now, but I think of that bittersweet exchange each time we say another inevitable farewell. In the past three decades, the nomadic travels of our military life have brought us in and out of countless airports – as the wind has changed and our course has shifted. But what has not changed is how hard it is to leave— and to be left—and the love we feel for our family and friends who have picked us up and dropped us off, hugged our necks, schlepped our bags, and wiped away tears of sorrow and joy during countless sad farewells and sweet reunions.
Twenty-one address changes are proof that, in our world, Home Sweet Home is a fluid concept. Most of our family milestones —weddings, graduations, funerals, vacations, retirements, promotions, and holidays — have been ushered in by aisle seats and Biscoff cookies at 30,000 feet.
Distance, deployments, geographically-separated families, and chronic farewells are the stock-in-trade of a life of military service. After more than 30 years in the trenches, I should be an expert by now. Yet, so often, I feel like a rookie when it comes to goodbyes. But, I have learned to cherish the value of time well-spent with loved ones, however brief, and the importance of expressing life-affirming sentiments at every opportunity:
…I’ll miss you. I love you. I’ll pray for you. I’m so proud of you. You have blessed my life. You mean the world to me. I think of you everyday. You are amazing. I’m so thankful for you…
I said those words and heard them back —again and again— on my whirlwind American adventure. Ah yes, goodbyes are inevitable and leaving is hard. But love sustains —through the miles, the missing, the sadness, and the tears.
The life of a military family is challenging, and demanding beyond comprehension, but it’s not without reward. This grand adventure of service before self has helped me grow, expand my vision of the world, and deepen my appreciation of the things that matter and the people I treasure. It has been, to quote that wise and unflappable nanny: practically-perfect in every way—and I am blessed to live it.
We’re back in Korea now and my heart is filled with sweet memories of those I love —of fun adventures and the comforting magic of the mundane. But it is also filled with tinges of regret for unfinished conversations, faces I didn’t get to see, and not enough— laughter, hugs, words, fellowship… and time. Never enough time.
But, as always, love will sustain, prayers will comfort, and technology will tether us until aisle seats, Biscoff cookies, and miles aloft at 30,000 feet bring us together again.
…when the wind changes.