Thursday, April 23, 2009

360 degrees

It seems strange to me now that I should be anxious about returning back to America. Two years ago, I thought that by the end of our assignment in Britain, we'd be more than ready to return. Indeed, I was certain (and told myself and others), that our two years away would be like an extended vacation.

How is it that I could ever have thought that something so huge as moving to a foreign country would not alter my life as I know it? Why is it that we assume we are unchangeable? My gosh, think of all the words of wisdom to the contrary:

When patterns are broken, new worlds emerge. --Tuli Kupferberg

To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly.
--Henri Bergson

Life is always at some turning point. --Irwin Edman

The one unchangeable certainty is that nothing is certain or unchangeable. --John F. Kennedy

And yet

We insist on maintaining the status quo. Always. Because who are we if not ourselves? In our mini vans and two story, bricked-front, two-car garage (three if you're lucky), double-paned window, American traditional homes? What would we do without our little league, capris and keds, baseball caps, ballet recitals, church potlucks, charity bingo, bake sales, endless expanses of green lawn, flashy gas mowers, Fourth of July fireworks, summer barbecues, Miller light (and when you're feeling saucy, Whoa! grab a Corona!), and gas fireplaces (our own little American monuments to opulence given that we never light them because it's just too damn expensive)?

All of these things—they define us, don't they? And we want them. I have them. I thought I would never want anything else. I have been, since my first child was born, the quintessential soccer mom. First, there was the sedan, of course. And then came the SUV once we'd moved up a bit in the world—an Expedition, probably the worst offenders of hippies worldwide, but damn, you could fit a small country in those things (Ever try to take a family and a golden retriever camping with a sedan? Ya, good luck, my friend. You might get the dog crate in there, but the tent is staying home. And probably one of your children). And then, TA DA! second child after a number of years (9 to be exact, but we'll save that story for another blog), and along came the (choke) minivan. Sun roof, leather interior, built-in DVD player—what more could a suburban mama want?

Why, a suburban mama wants nothing more than to take her children traveling. Go see the world! And so when the opportunity comes along—job assignment in Britain—you say, “Europe, baby, here we come!” I mean, can you imagine the family photos you will take and tuck away after a trip abroad?

You're envisioning little Tommy making a face in front of Big Ben and little Abby wearing sunglasses, propping her chin onto her fist like the Thinker at the Musée Rodin. And of course, you'll have to get your budding preteen pretending not to notice the camera with her headphones in place, chewing her bubble gum, in front of the Colosseum. And the stories you will have to tell! A breathtaking experience, you think. If you were lucky enough, you will have memories of that high school trip you took to Europe with your French class, and so you say to yourself, “My kids need to see this! Of course, we will move, but only for a bitty bit of time.”

But never, not once, do you envision falling in love with the place. I mean, really falling in love. Because, when it comes down to it, you are who you are, and there is no place on earth you'd rather be then fully entrenched in your life back home—your minivan, your capris, etc. etc. You have your set of close friends who you see on a weekly basis, your can't-do-without neighbors who you always chat up while watering your flowers (and really, the block parties! Too good!), your church family who supports you (and of course, the deviled eggs and the hash brown casseroles at the potlucks—I mean, Yum!), and the grandma who is right around the corner, there to pick up little Tommy and little Abby when you need a break and to make your budding preteen feel like there is at least one adult in the world who understands her, and there's the grumpy guy in the house behind you who always complains about your little poodle, but manages to accidentally leave a ham bone in your garden at least once a week, and the alarm clock of a paper boy who slams your door at 6:30 AM every morning, and even the postman (you know, the one with the red suspenders that do more to outline his bulging gut than to hold up his trousers) who never fails to show up by 10 AM (as a stay at home mom, you know this). This is your life. The time abroad, well, it's just an extended vacation. Right? Right?

I should tell you that I spent the first six months in England wanting desperately to go home. I felt utterly bereft. My daughter's school was too different, and it felt like the head teacher didn't give a damn about us. It seemed like parents were an afterthought. Had I requested to have lunch with my daughter on any given day, I think the shock of it would have stunned the teachers into British comas (“Bloody hell,” and FLOP, there they would fall, crumpling politely into themselves). There was no hope of establishing any sort of friendship with my daughter's teacher...hell, it was hard enough to befriend other mamas who seemed to think I was not just some woman from across the pond, but a runaway from a distant leper colony. And then people would just “drop in” for tea. Yeah, I mean totally uninvited and unexpected, and then fully expect you to not only have a tea kettle, but to have tea for it, along with an assortment of biscuits.

I'm telling you, it was all I could do one unexpected visit our first week in not to die of complete mortification. I was surrounded by crap as our movers had unpacked everything and just set it all on the nearest counter or floor space. The house was in tatters, I had no cleaning supplies, and I think it may have even been over 30 hours since I'd bathed. Yet, I gracefully invited my unexpected visitor in, cooing over her precious little toddler, and then sat down at the breakfast table with what I hoped would be a new friend (allowing her baby to crawl around on the floor below us). It only took about 1 minute & 30 seconds before I was mentally flogging myself as I had to pull what appeared to be a dried up bit of sausage from the toddler on the floor and tried to hide from her mother that her child was playing on what had to be the dirtiest floor in the kingdom.

Nothing was easy when we got here. They said they spoke English, but really, only in the strictest sense. Nothing was the same—not the appliances, not the language, not the shopping, not even the parking. Setting up utilities was a nightmare. Driving was insane. I could spend several different blogs discussing just the cultural differences (sayings, expectations, and queueing, good grief, you could write a thesis just on the British adherence to queueing). It was hard. It was scary. It sucked. We had no idea what we were doing. We wanted out. I didn't know how to exist here.

But then, as all people generally do when forced, we adapted. We slowly let go of our expectations, and therein our resistance, and we learned to live more like the British. And in doing so, we began to adjust and tweak our habits, our expectations, and yes, ourselves. We learned to walk instead of drive; we learned to conserve more, waste less...converse more, talk less; we learned that the best things take a little time and that slow to warm up does not mean cold; we learned that pubs are not just for alcoholics but for families and camaraderie; we learned that the British are good people and make for good friends; and, indeed, we learned to breathe a little slower and to just take it all in.

It is different here. No more , no less. Just different. And so we changed. Well, I can't speak entirely for the hubby and kids, but I have changed, I know. I was away from all my comforts—my capris (yeah, not very popular here), my church, my family and friends, and the comforting presence of my red-suspendered postman—and for the first time, I began to learn who Carol was. I felt abandoned, yet, for the first time, I felt unhindered. American suburban life has rules that can be hard to live by, you know? The expectations? Soccer mom. Room mother. Sunday school teacher. Loving wife. Attentive daughter. I didn't realize until moving here how hard that can be, and how much our identities come to rule us. But more significant, I have learned that I'm not just those things.

I'm scared now. I'm rather frightened to go home. I feel the kind of melancholy that only permanence can cause. And this, this return, is oh so permanent. So final. And we have friends here. We have created a place for ourselves here. In some ways, I am more American here than I ever was in the US. Here, I have felt free. Our only obligations, for the first time ever, have been to ourselves. Selfish? Ignoble? I prefer to think of it rather as a generosity to our own souls. And it feels good. Inside, I am screaming: Finders Keepers!!! Once again, I see change before me, only this time, a return to status quo. I love and miss my family and friends, my church. But I am afraid.

And yet

I have accepted fear as a part of life—especially the fear of change...I have gone ahead despite the pounding in the heart that says: turn back... --Erica Jong

There is a pounding in my heart.

ba-bump. ba-bump. ba-bump.

I fear for what I will leave behind.

We have come,

as always


Sunday, April 19, 2009

Where the Cucumbers Grow

There is a phenomenon in which people who must endure continuous days of darkness or rain or fog and mist, or otherwise perpetual crap weather, suffer extreme anxiety and depression. I probably shouldn't say “phenomenon”, since psychologists have now defined this strange occurrence of winter blues as a "mood disorder" termed Seasonal Affective Disorder, thereby allotting it a certain legitimacy (though the same psychologists seem to undermine their own sincerity by humorously shortening the inane, yet potentially serious condition to “SAD”). Despite the apparent, and certain legitimacy granted to such an occurrence by its pathophysiological oh-so-scientific terminology, it still seems to remain a phenomenon, nonetheless, in the same way that an arc caused by the refraction of sunlight on drops of moisture can be a phenomenon (a rainbow, people).

So, I think we can agree that such a phenomenon exists, right. I mean, that's what the scientists tell us with all their facts and figures, surveys and endless studies (even if these studies are comprised of forced labor on the part of Psych 101 students). So, let's assume it's true. Hey, something like 2 million Brits are affected by this condition—so they say (I did get this figure from an advert for a British sunlamp). You know, though, I'm inclined to believe it. It is not easy to live in Britain, especially in December when you begin to wonder what light looked like. Brits have been known to wear sunglasses at night and drive with their convertible tops down in 40ºF weather, likely a result of having never fully experienced daylight or summer; either that, or it's due to an incessant state of optimism, an attitude which I am far too stubborn and hopelessly bearish to adapt. I think God stuck England where the sun don't shine. But you'd never guess it by Britain's inhabitants. I've never seen anything like this, mamas pushing prams in the rain as if it were 72ºF and bright enough to get a suntan. I swear, sometimes I can still smell coconut oil on some of these Brits, even on the foggiest, cloudiest days.

But it's a good attitude, no? If the sun won't shine, why not pretend like it is? On Radio 1 today, I heard a very cockney-voiced little boy say these words: “If you believe it, it's true.” I'll be damned if that boy didn't believe his own words, too.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem a bazillion years ago (yeah, yeah, he's American, but it suits my needs, and above all my mood, to insert the poem here). It went like this:

The Rainy Day
The day is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
The vine still clings to the moldering wall,
But at every gust the dead leaves fall,
And the day is dark and dreary.

My life is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never dreary;
My thoughts still cling to the moldering Past,
But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast
And the days are dark and dreary.

Be still, sad heart! And cease repining;
Behinds the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.

(Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; Isn't he cheerful?)

I'm sure you are wondering now if I'm merely trying to inject a note of sickly sweet positivity into your day. Quite the contrary. Fact is, Longfellow was a rather wealthy and pampered American aristocrat who taught at Harvard and wrote simple, lyrical poetry for the masses. What did he know of dark and dreary days? Well, okay, he did lose his first wife after a miscarriage and his second wife after her dress tragically caught fire. And he did, apparently, suffer from bouts of “neurotic depression.”

Yeah, okay...the sun does shine occasionally. The 19th century Longfellow lived to the ripe old age of 75, having survived the tragic deaths of his two beloveds. Whatever. Glass half...

On that note (sort of), perhaps someone could explain to me why it is on the sunniest of days that an overwhelming sense of anxiety creeps into me—and I'm talking careeeeeps. Totally unexpected. I wake up, the sun is out, and at first, I think “Sweet Jesus I love you for the stars but thank you God for the sun!” And then the day chugs along, the sun remains, I begin to smell cut grass, I hear the birds chirp, I stare out our sliding glass door, maybe lean my forehead on the glass, and suddenly, I feel overcome with the prickly feeling of the inevitable. Although sun in the morning doesn't generally signal a sunny day in England, as the weather is as fickle as a ninth grade born-again virgin cheerleader, it should, in general, lift even the most morose of spirits in Grey Britain. Yet, for me, there are some days, especially more recently, where the sun just seems to bring with it a certain taste of sorrow. Which is weird, cuz gray days can really bring me low.

Have you ever stood at the edge of the high-dive and stared down into the bottom of the pool, all crystal and blue and sparkling, the water not even rippling cuz it's just waiting for you, whispering to you to jump right in? And you had that sort of dropping feeling in your gut, and for a minute, you think, nope, nope, not gonna do it, criminy, somebody get me down; and then you look around and you see your friend (you know, the one you really kinda don't like all that much cuz he's always making fun of people and bragging about the latest toy his mama just bought him and that one time he laughed out loud like it was the funniest thing when your handbag fell open and the tampons fell out in front of everybody at the school dance), and his soaking wet trunks and near purple lips and shivering reminds you that he has just jumped, and he's waiting for you knowing you'll never make the jump, and he's ready to make fun of you and to tease you unmercifully like he teased you for drinking two cartons of milk at lunch the other day. And then you feel kind of excited because you know you really are going to do it, any second now, and you know that you will hate it, and your body will go sliding smoothly into the water and you will be fine and you will feel it glide around you, sucking you under, but only long enough to make you feel safe and cushioned, and you'll be fine cuz it's really just the moments until you hit that water that you're worried about, and this worry sort of momentarily strikes you with a panicky feeling like you get when you wake up and still think you're taking a test at school with no clothes on, and that panic momentarily shocks you into paralysis, and for a moment you forget what the hell you were doing on that springboard anyway, and you stop and wonder how you got there and who bought this ridiculous red polka dot bikini for you anyway, and you remember your friend Gertie talked you into it even though you're just a little bit fatter than she is and she only wears one-piece suits, and you wonder what the hell you were thinking ever listening to her because you've caught her saving ABC gum on the edge of her desk for after lunch, and this panic seizes your mind enough that you forget the damn gum and spring back to the diving board, and there's Tommy with his dripping trunks and his leer on his face ready to laugh, and then you just


This is what sunny days make me feel sometimes.

Do you know what my 2 year old said today? Her big sister, Kate, asked her: “Do you say 'tuh-maw-toe, Emmie?” (It's always a source of great entertainment for us, trying to ascertain how much of an accent Emmie is picking up here in GB). To this, Emmie replied, “No, I say cucumber.”

Honest to goodness, she actually said this. And then Emmie followed with, “You people, stop laughing at me.”

So, you know what I'm going to do, maybe? Gray days, sunny days, any day, I'm not going to say tomatoe or tuh-maw-toe. I'm gonna say cucumber.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Blank Sheet

I've never blogged before, so...

There are few things less scary for a student than a blank sheet of paper. To this day, I still occasionally wake up drenched in sweat, my heart pumping, half certain that I've missed the due date for a final paper. And yet, I can't help but wonder if that same clean sheet, so smooth and silent, staring blankly at its beholder, isn't in its own way far more terrifying for a writer.

Terrifying, yet exhilarating.

A clean sheet of paper is like a wrapped gift, and the present inside is determined by the way you unwrap it. Oh yes, and you must work around the giant, snarling pit bull whose teeth are clenched around one end of it.

Terrifying, yet exhilarating.

You'd think I were some sort of adrenaline junkie. But I'm not. Just a glutton for punishment, I think. Cuz I hate that clean sheet of paper almost as much as I love it.