This post is written by Jennifer L. Robinson. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram at @thepenofjen.
When I left Iraq in the spring of 2016 after two full years responding to the Syrian refugee crisis and later to the overwhelming wave of internally displaced people from Mosul, I felt certain that I was done for a while. I knew I wanted a break and could commit to taking one. During that break I would learn to quiet myself, find my center, and focus on a season of creativity. When I said goodbye to my colleagues, I didn’t plan on seeing any of them for at least a year.
My dad picked me up from the airport in San Diego in a new (used) Mercedes, which we filled with the smell of fast food tacos. On the ride home, we chatted about my flight and the weather in Erbil, his work and latest golf scores. My dad was giving me the space to talk if I wanted; I was waiting for a question. After a few minutes we both decided to listen to Oldies songs playing on the radio as if we had never heard them before.
My dad’s house is large and lovely, but it’s not the home I grew up in. The only time I lived in it was the last quarter of college and the six months following graduation, while I searched for my first international job. Over the years, my dad has been gracious enough to keep the guest room open for me instead of renting it out, always tucking freshly washed sheets onto the bed before I arrive for a visit. A lifetime of my most favorite memories are stashed in Rubbermaid boxes stacked in his garage. I have never had to worry about moving them; my dad’s willingness to keep them is his contribution to the work I do.
Since I planned to be home indefinitely, I set to cleaning and arranging the guest room. Paintings bought in a small shop in Baghdad were stuck to the wall with double-sided tape. My abaya and hijab hung forlornly in the closet next to my sundresses. I carried my brother’s old stereo out onto the ping-pong table in the living room, along with other items I perceived to be in disuse and in need of disposal. In the morning, I asked my dad to go through the items and put a sticky note on anything he wanted to keep. He was clearly annoyed but I was determined to carve out a space for myself that felt like my own.
But it was futile. I knew I couldn’t stay long; I had nothing to do but sleep late and exercise. The intense sense of community I’d developed while in Iraq, living and working in a small guesthouse that doubled as an office, was suddenly gone. Deadlines and meetings were replaced with channel surfing and endless snacking.
It only took two weeks before the stillness drove me to devise a new plan–an epic solo road trip. There wouldn’t be any checkpoints, but at least I’d be moving. The clothes I’d just unpacked, washed, and tucked into drawers were repacked into laundry baskets bought at the Dollar Store. Underwear and socks were shoved into a hat box along with my toiletries, and all of it was slammed into the trunk of my 2005 Toyota Corolla, which I’d recently reclaimed from the 17-year-old daughter of a friend. I’d let her drive the car while I was gone, the only condition being that she change the oil and keep it insured. The paint had started to peel and the driver-side window had gone a little bit wonky, but it would get me where I needed to go—which in that moment felt like anywhere and everywhere, all at the same time.
I set out on the Monday after Easter, driving north on I-5, the interstate highway that extends from the US border with Mexico north through California to Oregon. With one hand on the wheel and the other on my camera, I snapped photos of the Los Angeles Citadel Outlet Mall decorated with cement Lamassu, a mythical winged bull with the head of a human. Only months before, I’d walked the walls of a real citadel in Babylon, a mighty fortress complete with a maze in which invading armies were trapped and shot upon by King Nebuchadnezzar’s soldiers. I’d stood dwarfed between two giant Lamassu in the national museum of Iraq, thankful that at least these pieces were out of reach of the ISIS fighters who had taken it upon themselves to rid the land of such idols.
As I drove past the imitation citadel, I couldn’t help but think of the discount shoppers inside. Did they have a clue about the destruction of Nineveh’s history, culture, and people going on at that very moment? Did they care? I let the shoppers off the hook. Even I didn’t have the energy to dwell on such thoughts for long. Instead, I turned up the radio and belted along to Maren Morris’ country hit My Church:
When this wonderful world gets heavy
And I need to find my escape
I just keep the wheels rolling, radio scrolling
Until my sins wash away
I must have sung that song more than a dozen times by the time I reached the San Francisco Bay Area. Something about it brought me peace. Even if all hell had broken loose in Iraq, if I just kept driving, everything would be ok.
In Oakland, my friend Tiffany helped me plan out the rest of my route. We used Facebook to find friends I could stay with until I reached Winnipeg, where I’d reunite with a friend from Bible college. The next day, Tiffany headed to her job teaching at the local university, and I headed to Starbucks. As I sipped coffee and tried to read, my mind became consumed with thoughts about where I was sitting—too close to the windows. Hazardous Environment Awareness Training (HEAT) had taught me to be wary of possible suicide attacks on cafes. I moved further back, out of deference to my irrational fear.
The rest of my time in Oakland and San Francisco was lovely. We watched sea lions playfully nip at each other on Fisherman’s Wharf and attempted free juggling lessons in the park. Realizing I’d never be able to capture all of the experiences in writing, I started a podcast! I was living life to the fullest—connecting with people who had shaped the different seasons of my life, many of whom I’d not seen in decades. Thoughts of Iraq were replaced with conversations about homeschooling and adoption, and all of the other wonderful things my friends had been doing while I was gone.
I left the Bay Area and pushed north to Vancouver, stopping to ride a horse in the town of Paradise and smell the tulips in Washington. Upon reaching Canada, I turned east, driving through Banff National Park where I paused to admire the slick, blue glaciers surrounding Lake Louise and take photos of majestic elk as they crossed the road in front of me.
After a month on the road, I finally reached Winnipeg, where I moved into a studio apartment inside a church. The church keeps apartments for people who would otherwise find themselves at risk of sleeping on the streets. They call the arrangement an intentional community of people who are committed to supporting each other’s physical, social, economic, mental and spiritual healing. Living in the church reminded me of the community of aid workers I’d shared tents, meals, and general life with over the past 5 years. Like this church community, these aid workers had become my family, and I missed them.
From Winnipeg I descended south, stopping to visit my former sister-in-law in Minnesota and catch up on family gossip before finally pulling into my mother’s driveway late in the evening on a quiet day in May. I’d been there about a week when I read that Iraqi forces were advancing on Fallujah. There would soon be a new wave of displacement.
I wasn’t surprised then, when a message from my old life found its way to me through Skype: Would I be willing to go back to Iraq for a few weeks, six, tops? I wasn’t sure I wanted to go, but the adrenaline had already kicked in. There was excitement in my voice when I talked it over with my family. I made myself available to my employer in case no one else could be found to take the position, stipulating that I would continue my road trip until something was confirmed.
Two weeks later, in a New Orleans bungalow, I received another email from a contact in Greece. The NGO where I had most recently worked needed managers who could support the local authorities running camps for migrants. They wanted someone long-term, which I wistfully declined. I would be true to myself for as long as I could.
By July, I’d rounded Florida and driven north through much of America’s eastern coast when the final call came. Could I be back in Iraq by the end of the month? I said yes. This gave me less than a week to reach Canada, apply for a passport (as a newly minted Canadian citizen), and get back down to Boston where I planned to leave my car with a high school friend. Since I was going back to work, I figured I would take the job in Greece, too, traveling there directly after my time in Iraq.
Just four months after setting out, the road trip and my break were now officially over—like a New Year’s resolution I’d never intended to keep. “Healthy me” knew better, but the seduction of being wanted and needed, along with the fear that I would run out of money, got the better of me.
It’s spring again and I am back in the Middle East. My car is still in Boston, waiting for me to return and keep on driving. But I don’t know where I would go if I did go back, having already visited everyone I know but still lacking a place to call home. I strategically left a bag in Greece, a way of forcing myself to land there after my current deployment.
I plan to rejoin the acting class that I started attending on Tuesday nights, and try to get into a summer writing program. In May, I’ll run a half marathon along the Great Wall of China. I’ve stopped making promises to myself about how often and how long my breaks will be. I’ve realized that the most important thing for me is to feel like I’m doing something meaningful. When work satisfies that longing, I’ll keep at it. When it doesn’t, I’ll take a break.
Knowing my personality, there will likely always be a tension between finding meaning in work, and finding meaning elsewhere: out on the open road, in a classroom, in the kitchen of a good friend, or at a coffee shop plinking away at a keyboard as I learn to tell stories. I don’t know if this tension will ever be resolved. The only thing I can guarantee is that I’ll keep trying to live a good story, no matter where that takes me.