Monday, August 14, 2017

Predictions are Pointless

Exploring my current home country- my love for forest lined, temperate beaches continues (I am sorry SE Asia, but the sun...)

I think almost any question about life- what should I do? where should I go? why pick this over that, or do this other thing? if I obsess enough, will I come to the perfect right answer?- can be brushed aside with the following quote:

"... nothing in the world can one imagine beforehand, not the least thing. Everything is made up of so many unique particulars that cannot be foreseen."- Rainer Maria Rilke

Rainer, real talk, if you weren't long dead I'd kiss you for how perfectly you build a sentence and weave a thought through it. But seeing as how I am already pathetically in love with one dead poet (what's up, Walt? still singing songs about yourself? cool, cool) I guess I'll just say, yeah. You're right on with this one, Rainer, like always. And, like always, although I found and loved this quote almost a decade ago, I am still working on believing that truth. It is so much easier to get wrapped up in the idea of certainty and rightness, as though punching in the right combination will make everything work. I think I can look back at the last few years and say that I have pretty much punched in every random combination one could think of, and it all worked out.

Tonight, in my Swedish immersion lesson, my Swedish teacher asked me how I chose to move to Sweden. I laughed, a spontaneous burst of "oh, honey, no" tinged sound, and repeated back his sentence- how did I choose to move to Sweden? I never really did- I simply ended up here on accident and now, after a year and a half, I can have full conversations in Swedish with my teacher and tell him how I got here: I was traveling, aimlessly, without a plan, and met a person who would become my future co-worker in a hostel in Bosnia. Why was I at that hostel in Bosnia? Because I was reuniting with the friend with whom I had worked two years earlier in Albania, and she was now living in Montenegro, and her vacation happened to coincide with the travel plans of two friends I had met in Laos, after leaving Albania.

Life is absolutely insane. People say things happen for a reason. There is no reason. Fantastically unpredictable things happen, awful tragedy and pulsing joy and unexpected challenges and unearned luck and privilege, and then you respond to those things as best you can. This goes on every day of your life until your life is over. The best advice I was given to assuage my perfectionist, anxiety riddled need for certainty was that there is no "should do" when one is vacillating between several perfectly good options, or making a decision with little information to go one. You just make your choice, do your best, and work with what happens.

I just had an hour long conversation in a language I never wanted to learn in a country I never planned on visiting, let alone living in. What an absolute joy it is to have absolutely no clue where you will end up when you start something.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

5 Years Later

June 18th, 2017 marked five years since my sister died. August 3rd, 2017 marked five years since I moved abroad. I had no idea what I was doing, I was mourning the loss of my sister, and I was heading to a continent I had never been to so I could live in a country I knew very little about and start my very first year of teaching. To say there were questions, to say I was confused, to say I was overwhelmed, is a massive understatement.

Five years on from such a great loss and such a great change, and it seems unimaginable and terrifying to leave when I did- I have no idea just how it formed and affected me as I was grieving and simultaneously leaving everyone and everything I knew. I remember thinking that there was no way I could leave for Albania a little over a month after her funeral. But I did, because in the end I knew that there would be no right answer either way, and that leaving or staying, she was already gone. I knew for certain she wouldn't have wanted me to stay for her, when she wasn't there.

So I carried her with me across the ocean and grieved my way through that trip and the next year in Albania. I wrote about her, over and over, and wrote to her, and cried for her, and spent untold hours just sitting and thinking about who she was and how much I missed her. In some ways, in eerie and spiritual ways, she was my closest companion even as I grieved that she was gone. Away from home and family, when I turned to memories and tears and sinking feelings of loss, she was also, even in the form of a memory, the one who comforted me, who understood the loss of that family bond. It was, in this way, that I grieved my way with her, about her, and into a place I came to again and again, that I carried her, and carry her now, always.

I wrote the following passage about my sister a year after her death. Re-reading it on the fifth year since she passed I don't feel quite this way anymore. It's all still true, and I still feel it this viscerally at times and in some ways, but the feeling of carrying the absence has become less of a noticeable and painful burden. I think it's because I have gotten to used to the weight and space it occupies in me. This is where grief ends up in you, in the bodily record of loss. It doesn't get any easier to lose a sister. It never becomes ok. You simply learn to work with that reality. If that means you can go stretches of time without pain or sadness because you have grown accustomed to bearing the absence, it also means that sometimes you will be walking through a grocery store and hear the song played at her funeral and suddenly there are tears running down your face. It comes and goes, and when it comes you are more prepared than the time before. No amount of years will ever undo the wish for more time, but at least now, when I reflect on the time we did have together, the memories can bring me the joy of remembrance for what we had, instead of the pain of the loss of what we can never have now. I think Heather would be happy to know that five years since her death and four years since I wrote these words, I don't feel so carved and cut these days. Her name and face are her own again in my memories.

For My Sister

June 18th was the day the summer carved and cut from me, shredding and scattering and leaving the hollow. The sun baked the edges and burned away still more. I poured out of my face and fell out of my throat and rotted in my own belly. Every waking began with the slivered edge of a remembrance of what was, followed fast by the rushing wailing of the remembrance of what was now. I was breaking and broken and crucially crumbling, wasting away in the tender part that knit us together, the part that was carved, the place that was cut, the pieces that were shredded and scattered, the hollow that remained, waiting, growing. I crumpled around the absence and slid inside. I wept my way around the borders of this emptiness; I crawled in the dark of it, finding it ever expanding under my searching palms, my dirty knees, my bowed and broken head. In this way I mapped the shape of the place my sister occupied in the person I was. I often forgot where I was and thought I would find her there, even though there was the place of where she was not. So I heaved and sobbed through a wretched and winding way, and in these crawling, sliding, elbow dragging travels I discovered what the hollow held. There in the dark, wet cold, I did not find a straightforward grief, or frank loss, or blunt pain. It was nothing so simple or neat, not so clean or sane. Inside, instead, I found a living thing. I found an unwanted and strange creature, humming and fluttering along under my ribs. It has a name I love and a face I miss, but it is not her.

It’s a beating and breathing mass of all that she was, and all I was with her, and all we were together. It murmurs what was left unsaid, and remembers what should never have been said. It shimmers with memories beautiful, and shudders under memories terrible. It teems with joys, with guilt, with questions; it dreams in misty ifs and cries in sharp barks of why, why, why? It is frenetic and dangerous, full of teeth and grasping claws that mark me over and over again; it is smooth, docile curves where I can rest my head and hear the beating heart of what it meant to be and to have a sister. In the hollow, beneath my ribs, sometimes it’s so small I can breathe around it. Sometimes I forget it is there and glance down to find its eyes on me, and then I have to discover it all over again through the infinite shock of knowing. Sometimes it’s wild and screaming and threatens to overtake me; sometimes it does, and then I’m in the hollow, in unfamiliar places I have yet to map, crawling again on searching palms and dirty knees, lost. Sometimes, when it has been exceptionally tame and I am feeling especially brave, I make myself reach in and carefully cradle it in my hands. I make myself feel the shape of it, and softly stroke the finality of what it means to have such a creature inside of me. I feel the awful weight of it in my palms, the warm, weeping reality cupped there, the insistence of the necessity of carrying it with me until I, too, am an unwanted and strange creature beating and breathing in the hollow under someone’s ribs. Rare are these brave times, because they leave me exhausted- far more so than those first lost days of crawling, sliding, elbow dragging travels. At the bottom of everything, of course, such distinctions are pointless: whether cupped in my hand or curled in the hollow, I can never, and I will never, be apart from it in any way that truly relieves me. The geography of the body doesn’t allow for such distance. Our proximity is complete and final.

Most of the time, I can be neat and clean and sane, and allow it to live as I know it must live, to dream and scratch and breathe and beat and shimmer and shudder, to hum and flutter along somewhere under my ribs. Most of the time I can set my shoulders and move through the world even as it moves inside of me. Most of the time. Still, in slipping moments I sometimes give in to the need to stand on the slivered edge of remembrance of what was. I shake my head at what is now. I try to fill in the space where I was carved and cut, but it pours out of me. I try to gather the shredded and scattered, but it is forever lost. In this ritual I try to deny what is now, even as I know I cannot forget the crawling travels of the hollow, or ignore the unwanted and strange creature under my ribs.

Despite the hopelessness of it, I do so desperately wish that it hummed and fluttered anonymously.

Despite the hopelessness of it, I do so desperately wish that it did not take the name I love and wear the face I miss.

Despite the hopelessness of it, I do so desperately wish for June 17th.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Rainy Days and Wasting Time

The crooked staircase leading to the abandoned amusement park

I am writing to you, as I so often do, on a long train. This one is the Kaunas, Lithuania to Bialystok, Poland version. It’s a three carriage affair with bright new red seats that was, for the first half of the journey, so silent and empty that I had an entire carriage to myself in which to shamelessly roll out a yoga mat in the aisle for half an hour. Considering this was a four hour, no, surprise, you forgot about the time change, five hour train, that kind of first half was certainly appreciated. Currently in the second half of the journey the train is more bustling, with cell phone conversations and seniors on bike holidays and painfully cool teenagers who are studiously and self-consciously draping themselves into various positions of could not care less- no, really, I don’t care, see? I see. The mother two aisles back from me has been desperately wrangling a small bouncing child, who has now resorted to screeching a protest against the time spent on the train. The train is indifferent to the protests, and continues to pursue the track at a slow and methodical “yes, we will take five entire hours to get there” pace. 

The scenery sliding by my window could be the American midwest: rolling hills, cows dotting the countryside, flocks of white birds bursting low across the tops of fields. The skies are summertime blue, clouds are obligingly white, and coupled with the farmhouses that crop up intermittently it is thoroughly earning the description idyllic. Nothing is left of the sopping day before. That day was wrung out in Kaunas, spent biking into a constant faceful of cold, pricking mist that frequently turned to fine, persistent rain. It doesn’t occur to me to feel anything towards this seemingly bad weather luck, even though one would think rain and trains and sun and bikes fit together more nicely. Generally speaking, this is true, but there are always exceptions. Almost nothing reinforces a lack of responsibility more than willfully, slowly, moving your body through the rain without concern for the consequences. No matter being wet, hair frizzled, smelling slightly of outdoor cat and wet leaves, sweat mixed with humidity, a fine layer of grit all over- to move unhindered by, and uncovered in, the rain is to declare that absolutely nothing is expected that would require being presentable.

And so every pedal stroke over every slick surface chanted Iamonvacationrightnow, round and round. I was spectrums of wet and disheveled all over that town- there was no quick dash from shelter to shelter, no wait it out, it was all let’s swan through, take the time, look at that statue, have another turn around the square. I walked through an abandoned amusement park under trees dutifully turning leaves full of water over onto my head with every breeze. I sat down to lunch decidedly not dry all over, my hair expanded into a water born creature with a life and goals of its own. I visited a bakery after carelessly sitting in the puddle my bike seat had collected while I observed a church organ for as long as I wanted, humid and thoughtful. That evening, I crept softly through the shelves of a local bookshop with my jacket quietly weeping down my legs, rain drop curls clinging to my neck. The clerk responded to my request for Lithuanian poets with a handwritten note that listed four names; she pressed it into my damp palm where it promptly transferred the authors backwards into my hand, passport stamp proof of that strange and lovely day.

I will remember Kaunas as a cold, grey bowl of a world, explored lazily on a rented bicycle, guided by a paper map, the meandering route in the wind and rain punctuated with these warm pockets: the abrupt, stark silence of the unexpectedly stunning cathedral; the circle of heat from the pizza oven at lunch; the yeasty air of the bakery; the bookshop scented with coffee and pastries. This might not even be Kaunas- who knows what the sun brings- but it’s the Kaunas I had, and it was gloriously grey scale and otherworldly. 

I’m telling you this part after a train station layover, now on the final leg to Warsaw- the first time for that city, but the third visit to Poland. Returning to foreign countries is something I never thought I would do and will probably never get used to. It still seems lucky and strange to me to get to visit new places at all; going back to old places and enjoying familiarity and favourite spots and comfort feels like a luxury that belongs to other people with different lives. I don’t know if the person I was a few years ago would have been able to make the most out of the one day spent in a small town being surrendered to rain without being filled with regret. Everything felt so tenuous, so desperately important, when I was first traveling and living abroad. There were so many firsts to be had, an almost endless parade of them that I knew I wanted, and I also knew I didn’t want anything to be squandered. Being able to graciously rinse a day out in the rain, or leave earlier than planned, or stay later than expected, or “waste” vacation days going back to the same city just because I liked it on a previous trip, is a freedom that has come with getting to the point where I have satisfied so much of what I needed to satisfy. 

I realized, even just now as I was writing this, that I don’t travel like I am starving anymore, like I need to consume the world in one mad dash to make up for lost time (which is usually not lost at all, just defined as such, and so it finds itself lost). I have spent years of my life pursuing what I needed to have, and I have been able to have so much of it. I am finally at a point where I can give all the time I want to it. I can stay longer. I can go back. There isn’t an arbitrary expiration date hanging over me anymore, wagging a finger that I need to hurry up. I don’t have to pray for sunny days, or hope a school will hire me in spite of lack of experience, or wonder if my funds will travel with me as far as I want to go. 

I’ve reached the point where Kaunas can rain, and I can let Kaunas rain, and nothing feels ruined or lost. This is the current version of the product of all these decisions over the last five years. I have traveled and explored and searched my way into feeling like I am walking through places now, and letting them wash over me, instead of running after them. I liked the running- it felt good to know I could run to get the things I wanted, when I needed to. I don’t need to anymore, and that feels good, too. 

Monday, July 10, 2017

Learning Swedish on the Watermelon Farm

When I was living in Laos, I met three Italian men while they were in the process of putting the final touches on the bar they were about to open. Over the course of what ended up being countless visits, I got to know them and so many of their stories well. The short version of one of those stories is that they met while working on a watermelon farm in Australia, saved up money, and bought the bar. The long version is one of my favourite stories about goal setting, motivation, and language learning.

L., the bartender, told me how he came to find himself on that watermelon farm in Australia in the first place. When he was deciding to leave Italy to work abroad, he knew he could have gone to the UK much more easily. You don’t need a visa, it was closer, and the flight was certainly cheaper. But one of L.’s goals, in addition to saving money and living abroad, was to learn English. At that point, he was in his late 20s and he knew virtually nothing of language. Learning English by immersion was possible in the UK, but he told me that he also knew that if he went to the UK he would most likely move into an Italian neighborhood, with his Italian friends, and speak only Italian. And if things got hard? It’s an equally cheap, short flight right back home. So, instead, he spent all of his money on Australian visas and flights, and put himself in a situation where he was forced to stay, and forced to learn. There were people from all over the world at the farms where he worked, and English was the official language of communication. There were always a few Italians, but he asked them to only speak English with him, no matter how little he understood. 

He said the first three months were miserably painful. He felt stupid, out of touch, didn’t feel socially connected, struggled with the language, with listening, with speaking. Loneliness was an enduring feeling in the first weeks, because language connects, and he didn’t have the language. But after those first three months, things improved, and after that, everything accelerated. Only two years later, he stood before me telling me this story in perfectly fluent English, having learned it all orally and by immersion on a succession of farms in Australia. It reminded me that so many things people do are accomplished because they simply do them, and keep doing them, even when they are not doing them very well in the beginning.

Since then, I often think about taking on big goals and projects as putting myself on the watermelon farm. For one, this reminds me I am choosing to do this to myself, and for two, it reminds me that I will be able to accomplish the task, even if the beginning stages are absolutely miserable. Unexpectedly coming to Sweden and learning the ins and outs of the IB program while picking up halfway through the year qualified as a watermelon farm project for sure. More directly connected to L.’s story, when I am struggling through tough patches in my own Swedish language study, I always think of my friend and his time on the watermelon farm. 

Having this approach is useful, because studying Swedish in Sweden often gets reactions ranging from Swedes jokingly saying “why are you bothering learning Swedish?” to expats vigorously defending the idea that the language is impossible to learn due to the prevalence of English. When told that learning Swedish was useless and/or impossible, it motivated me even more, on top of my main motivation to not make the mistake I made my first year in Laos, when I didn’t commit fully and immediately to language study. I have, therefore, spent a lot of time teaching myself Swedish in the last year and a half, on top of recently taking a class and getting untold amounts of help from Swedish friends. At this point, it is hard for me to imagine not having this level of language knowledge. Understanding Swedish, even at my current basic level, has made me feel more connected to Sweden, and connected to people within Sweden, and has without a doubt fundamentally enriched my experience here. Now that my Swedish has gotten more complex, I have multiple interactions a week that give me a feeling of happiness and accomplishment, because I am using something I worked hard for. Having something to show for it, that results in human connection, is deeply satisfying to me. In a strange way, though, it is only by knowing Swedish that I understand the benefits and impact of knowing Swedish. 

Just the other day I came home to find a woman, and her bike, on my front stoop. As I got closer, I saw her furrowed brow, and still closer, she saw me and her expression turned expectant. She asked me, in Swedish, where the pendeltåg station for Sollentuna was, and how far it might be. Her words were richly accented from a language I could not place, and they made the Swedish sound lilting in a wholly different way, one I found pleasing and unique and still totally understandable.

I responded back to her, in what I know is my own richly accented Swedish, and gave her directions and approximate times but admitted I was not aware where the bike path started. She immediately replied back that maybe she should just take the train to meet her friend, and I affirmed her choice and wished her well. In spite of our respective flairs of accents, intonations, and melody, neither of us had any hesitations or problems understanding one another. We had a pleasant interaction, she was helped, and then we went our separate ways. 

Interactions like this always get me thinking about the definitions of speaking a language “correctly”. As someone whose mother tongue is English, I am accustomed to hearing English more ways than I can count, with a seemingly infinite number of accents and melodies and intonations, grammatical structures and wording. It never occurs to me to care if someone has a “native” accent in English. I enjoy hearing all the variations of English accented with mother tongues- the guttural persistence of the French r, the musicality of Hindi, the thick twang of Southern accents twisting vowels into entire words, the rolled r’s of Spanish- none of this makes the English less English, and I have never had a problem understanding and being understood. Language does not need perfect pronunciation and grammar to work. If we can understand one another, the language is working just fine. After being here in Sweden for awhile, I can notice different accents in spoken Swedish, but I find them interesting variations, not problems.

What I have noticed, conversely, as a speaker of English learning other languages, is how tortured English speakers get with their expectations of pronunciation perfection when they start trying to learn other languages. Anxiety around pronunciation might be the number one thing holding back language learners- you might know that phrase, or have the words, and maybe you are even sure of the grammar, but you hold back because you know as soon as you open your mouth, you will be found out. And you probably will- but just forge on ahead. Unless you are speaking a tonal language, pronunciation should not be totally making or breaking you, because context also matters. Maybe you pronounce the vowel sound wrong and it sounds like a similarly spelled word, but in the context of the situation 99% of people will be able to fill in the blanks. If ever you feel self conscious about your accent, just remember all the millions of ways you have heard English, remember everyone has an accent of some sort, and then open your mouth and speak whatever language you are trying to learn. Swedish can be daunting for me because it is a musical language, and that melody is hard to hit. I can feel painfully awkward at times, but never speaking it certainly won’t help, so I am just hoping I can talk my way into something that has a bit more flow to it. 

Speaking of pain- learning a language is a monumental task that takes years to refine, and there are definitely painfully embarrassing moments, but it is not impossible to work on the watermelon farm. You do not have to be “good at languages”, or have some magical gift, or even have hours of free time every day. What you do need to have is commitment, consistency, and a drive to do it. If you have zero desire to learn a language, you will never learn that language- and frankly, that’s totally fine. There are only so many hours in a day and days in a life, and we all make choices with how to spend that time. The key is realising when we are making those choices. 

Here is where the watermelon farm story can often be used as an excuse- it’s very easy to hear that story and take a different lesson from it. Maybe something like “Well if I were in that situation I could learn a language, too!” And that wholly misses the point. L made the choice to put himself in that situation. You must also make the choice to put yourself in that kind of situation. And you can do that with language learning. With all the free resources there are now, it is possible to immerse yourself in any language, in any country, wherever you are, if you have access to the internet.

If you have some language learning goals, I highly suggest these two free apps for your phone: Duolingo and Memrise. Another excellent resource I use for general language learning motivation is the site Fluent in 3 Months. While the catchy title means different things to different people, I have yet to find a better aggregation of inspiring stories, useful tips, and motivation to keep studying. 90% of my Swedish study has been based on these three resources, as I only just recently took a Swedish class for conversational practice. Fluent in 3 months has several articles about free or very cheap conversation partners, which is also useful if you are learning a language while living somewhere that language is not widely spoken. 

At the moment, my next step with Swedish is to take the A2 Part 2 course in the fall, and I think I should probably have a weekly conversation partner to force me to talk about things beyond the standard day to day interactions I have at shops. I am looking forward to seeing where my language skills will be a year from now, judging by where I have gotten in about a year of total study time. I have to say that I have surprised myself with what I have learned, and there are often times when I open my mouth and something I don’t remember learning comes out. On the flip side, I also have terrible grammar and word order at times, my verb conjugations are atrocious in the past tense, and I still don’t get the endings of adjectives right. But every time I have used Swedish, no matter how raggedy and American accented, I have been understood, and that’s the main goal for me right now.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Notes from my Socialist Hellhole: Filing Taxes

As an American living abroad, I not only have to file taxes where I live and work (not America) but I have to file taxes where I don't live or work (America). Only two countries in the world require this of citizens living overseas: the U.S. and Eritrea. The exceptionally awful bit is that even if I legally owe zero dollars in taxes to the U.S., I can incur enormous fines for not filing my taxes, or for filing them incorrectly. 

Because of this, I filed my American taxes about a month early. This involved: calculating my salary here, taking into account my taxes, filling out a 1040-EZ, filling out a foreign earned income exclusion form, printing it all out, checking it, signing it, making extra copies for my records,buying stamps, buying envelopes, and then mailing it. Including extensive preliminary research to be sure nothing had changed in international tax laws for American citizens, this took about five hours. 

Here is how I filed taxes in Sweden: the government mailed me a blue envelope, I opened it, made sure the pre-filled form had my correct personal information, and then I logged into an app on my phone and submitted my taxes with a simple checkbox text message. The end.

Since everything runs through an organization known as Skatteverket, the government is able to take my income information, automatically generate it into the correct form, and then automatically print it and mail it to me. As a worker in Sweden, I automatically have a Skatteverket account associated with my personnummer, so it's all taken care of. My tax return amount was already on the form I received, and it will be sent to me via direct deposit (as my bank account is also linked to Skatteverket). 

Taxes filed with a text message confirmation that the form I did not have to request, research, or fill out was correct? I'll take it. 

Monday, March 13, 2017

Hello, Again. Again.

Sometimes I will go months without writing here on my blog (or anywhere at all) and when I try to do so I make several failed attempts that feel self conscious and awkward, like shyly trying to re-approach someone after a long time apart. I'm not sure of what to say, or how to act. I read back over old posts and think that it was something really nice, and then this compounds the problem- I have written all the nice things I will ever write. I am out of it. My interesting is gone. What is there left to say?

In that vein, I just spent about an hour sifting through half written essays, notes, stories, lists, travel journals, and half baked posts, having never gone back and done so, really, in the entire time I have been keeping such little digital scraps, which is about as long as I have been living overseas. The sheer amount of almost realized communication is staggering. I am even more shocked at how much of it I had absolutely forgotten, right up until that moment my gaze was sliding across the words reminding me that yes, this happened, yes, you did that, yes, remember you meant to write about ___________?

The one that really made me wince, the part that stopped me in my nostalgic wandering tracks and dropped me straight onto this waiting white page, was a post about this time two years ago, when I was finishing my thesis. I was bemoaning how all I had been doing for months was writing, but all I wanted to do was write, and could not.

It’s Friday night, and I was supposed to sit down, once more, with all of that data and start writing a story out of it: identifying themes, sketching out categories, separating and copy pasting and research marking and citing and connecting. I was supposed to prepare it to be grafted seamlessly onto what I’ve already done, so it is accepted and works well together and fills in another blank in this big project that I’ve come to see as so many seemingly endless blank squares that I am slowly filling in, tiny black letter by single keystroke by citation by article, a meditative inch by inch belly crawl through this last long stretch of requirements before I get my degree in hand.

Instead, I sat down and wrote this. This that means nothing other than a representation of what is in my head, when what should be in my head is research and facts and Chap 4 rough drafts and Chapter 2 reworking and formatting tables and figuring out how to make Excel do what I need it to do.

This feeling is familiar, still. I still have not found a way to fix it.

For the past two months, all I have been doing is writing, non-stop, in every single spare second I could wring from my weeks and take from weekend after weekend. But it has only been writing all over my students' writing- comments, feedback, paragraphs of advice and restructuring and help. For weeks on end, I spent an average of 20 hours a week writing, writing, and writing more, all over all of their writing. The last thing I wanted to do after analyzing others' writing for hours was sit down and pour out and pore over my own. Why look at a screen for another single second? And in case you think to suggest, so helpfully, dear reader, I could just embrace handwriting- no, no, because that, too, I have been doing for hours, adding my own scrawling notes to their handwritten exams.

Today on the bus it occurred to me that I have noticed I get more done the more I have to do, and this is generally true. I can be fantastically, outrageously, super humanly productive, packing my days full from morning to night with a variety of responsibilities, activities, and various jobs for weeks, months, and sometimes, in the case of full time work and full time university studies, years.

And yet, when I reflect on that productivity, it never applies to my creative endeavors. It does, thankfully, apply to personal hobbies like working out, being social, volunteering, and being politically active- but writing? Do I guard it with the same fierce vengeance I reserve for getting all my grading and comments done on time, or ensuring I make all my meetings, or registering people to vote, or cleaning my house every Sunday, or keeping up my training and silks?

No. Every time, no. I don't know why, but it is always the first thing to go.

It makes me disappointed in myself that I will diligently work for an extra 20 hours a week at my job, because of their external and arbitrary deadlines, but I will not afford writing the same respect from myself, to myself, to impose diligent, consistent, hours of work here. I will berate myself for not answering an e-mail within a few hours, but I will type up a heartfelt memory of a trip or a person or a moment and want to expand that into a piece of writing that preserves moments of my one and only human life, and then I will let that waste in a Word document in Google drive for two years and not even remember what I wanted to do with it until I happen across it and am startled with how far away that strength of a recollection feels now.

I just turned over another year living overseas- 5 now, to be exact- and I am not interested in racking up another year of untold stories and unrealized plots or unexamined experiences. For the foreseeable future, this space will become a strange accordion time warp of present ramblings and random pin points in my recent past, hopping from year to year and month to month within this half decade of time I have spent wandering the earth with everything I own in my hands and on my back. I am not sure where all of this writing will be going, or what I am doing with it, but I want to go somewhere, and do something. Even if all I am doing is showing reverence for my own life by taking the time and space to reflect on it, craft it into a story, and pin it down on a page so that I can go back and learn from it and enjoy it again, that's enough. It doesn't have to be a book. It doesn't have to be worth anything to anyone but me. But it has to be worth enough to me to give it the time I do think it deserves, because when I read back on past posts or journals, every single time, without fail, I think to myself how glad I am that I wrote that down.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

One Year in Sweden

I wrote this in September. I still feel this way, so here it is in January, roundabout my first anniversary here in Sweden.

It is September in Sweden and the sun is still shining. I have never had a September in Sweden, so this comes as a welcome and pleasant surprise (I had imagined far worse in terms of light and cold). I have spent the first few weeks of school in a comfort and confidence I was not sure I would ever have when I was in the throes of setting up a life here last winter. I just finished a day at work in which I could feel the arc of time and history in a space wrapping around me: the familiarity of a lesson I taught last year, and improved upon; the return of students from last year’s graduating class; the last class photo my mentor group will take before they, too, graduate; a conversation held in the Swedish I have so relentlessly pursued in spite of how “impractical” learning it might be. I have a past here now, however short, however small. It is mine and it is also shared with everything and everyone here that helped build it. It is a reference point, a place to retreat in nostalgia, a thing to hold in the hands of my memory and say this is what My Life in Sweden looks like. 

Last January I arrived in Stockholm on a train after a whirlwind final journey through the last parts of voluntary unemployment and homelessness. I had gotten very good at the uncertainty of traveling with all my life on my back- no plans, no security, no guarantees. I had worked, hard, at the job of unraveling all my superficial expectations of what Success looked like, or what I should Own, or Be. I had fully embraced the ramble, the stray cat summer turned fall and winter and into a new year, all the fuzzy timelines and meandering routes and even, yes, the terror of the change jingling echoes in my bank account. All of it. I had accomplished what I set out to do when, in Laos, I was counting down to my last week of gainful employment and schedules and clarity. 

The problem, then, became trading in the pattern of unpredictability for the steady state routine of work and life and an apartment, and here came the psychological way station. It was no longer necessary to be good at being, by all accounts, something of a failure in terms of traditional values of shaping a life, because I no longer needed to be- look, a job! Behold, an apartment! My God, pay checks and upward account balances! But at the same time, I wasn’t good at all in this new life yet. It wasn’t just the abrupt change in lifestyle that was hard to adjust to, it was everything all at once. I had never started a teaching position in the middle of the year, I had never taught IB, and I had never had to navigate intricate Western bureaucracy as an immigrant. Add on a nice layer of illness and a general apathy towards Sweden as a host country (the excitement of Laos and Albania is hard to compete with) and I found myself in a place where I had let go of one rope before I had the other firmly grasped. I fell into the mire. It was rough going. To trudge through the mire, and look back on seven months of exhilarating, terrifying, life changing travel experiences and freedom, was no easy task. I imagined quitting and running away to the Balkans. Clearly, I did not quit and run away to the Balkans, and I am glad I didn’t.

But for real, this time last year I was daydreaming about any of these dots as a place to land...

I am so often stressing to my students the importance of context. We analyse how this shapes meaning and experience, and how much it can fundamentally alter even things we think have intrinsic value or meaning. When I was in this way station winter in Stockholm last year, I found it hard to get a context wrapped around myself, to latch on to references for even the most basic things- what is a friendship? What does family mean and who am I in mine if I am not there? What does it mean to value your job? What do I value in my day to day life? What do I want to spend my time on? What am I saving money for? What are my goals here in Sweden? Why am I here? The last was asked over and over again. 

I was, for the first time since those hellish years of full time work and full time college, reduced to subsistence living- just get through the days. Just make it through the week. The pile of work prevented me from merging my life with Sweden, from having as many social connections as I needed, from spending as much time on my hobbies and exercise. I bitterly joked that I felt like I was on a work release program. I felt more truly like an immigrant than I have ever before, culture shocked and questioning, and I felt less connected to the adventure of overseas life, which is why I do this at all. I ended up having some wracking crises of identity and purpose that hit me hard. I have never had an experience quite like it, but at the same time, being able to say that exact phrase is perhaps one of the most valuable things to me in how I approach life, so I am still grateful for it.

I remember this day in April in a visceral way- it was the first time I had a breather from work, the sun was coming back, and I finally had a real opportunity to sit and reflect on where I was, and if I wanted to stay.

Towards the end of last year, when the sun came out, things brightened up literally and figuratively. I ended the year happy and satisfied with how well I had done, all things considered. But it took this year, a retracing of steps, a walk down familiar paths, to show me just how far I had really come since January- walking back on myself in a circle felt like catapulting forward. I simply needed a context. I needed some repetition to gently remind me, more than once, that I had a place here, a place that was worthy of giving up my freedom and unemployed traveling for. When I came back in August I found familiarity in the most surprising of places, from the workers at the coffeeshop who remembered me to the dance studio where I worked to reconnecting with and deepening prior friendships with people who so graciously welcomed me into their lives last winter.

The experience of traveling with fundamental trust that everything would work out profoundly changed me. I have written at length here about how much I have come to cherish the benevolence of my random experiences, how people come out of nowhere to help, or situations arrange in such wonderfully lucky ways. I had 7 months of shamelessly throwing myself on the mercy of whatever came my way, and I was over and over again blown away with the results. But this was followed immediately after by such a hard transition to Sweden, which was followed immediately after with returning to Texas for the first time in two years. I am realising, now, as I enjoy the comfort of context here in Sweden, just how context-less I am when I go home to Texas- in general, but especially this last time. Usually when I have returned home it is after a year in a new place, plenty of time to feel firmly rooted. This time I slipped out of Sweden right as I found my feet, so again, I was in the way station- not fully realising my place in Sweden, and going home to Texas without a place there, either. 

But I never forget how to eat like a girl from the South...

In Japan or Albania or Laos or Sweden I have had rewarding, challenging, and interesting jobs that give me fundamental meaning in my life. I have diverse relationships with myriads of students who enrich my life. I am surrounded by a constant barrage of cultural experiences that challenge me, that stretch me, that are sometimes painful and awkward but important and deeply valuable to me. I am independent, living alone in all four countries, with my own transportation or access to excellent transportation. I have a lively and social group of friends who share  my lifestyle and experiences as immigrants, who enjoy uprooting and moving from country to country, who deeply understand the challenges and opportunities. I have hobbies and creative outlets and little routines and gym memberships and local causes. I have an entire rich and vibrant bursting life, complex and complicated and, for me, deeply fulfilling and meaningful because it is hard, challenging, and sometimes terrifying.

And then I get on a plane, and I go home, and all of that is left behind in whatever country I am living in at the time. I slide out of that life and leave it running, humming in the back ground, as I move further and further away, towards my old home. I get off the plane, and I have no material belongings save whatever is in my bag. I am sleeping on couches or spare bedrooms, working around others work schedules since I have day after day of summer break free time. I am coming back to the culture shock that is America after living in another country for years. I have my friends and family who love me and take me in and host me and it is so good to see them, but they don’t know the people in my life who have sustained me day in and day out for the previous years- the people who saw me through sicknesses and outrageous experiences or triumphs or failures. These people that mean so much to me, they are unknown to the people at home who also mean so much to me. It is a strange feeling to see your cousins again for the first time after your grandmother died and realise that they might never meet the compassionate circle of friends who held you as you cried over death and worked through grief. They might not know the names of those who whisked you away for the weekend and floated with you down a river under a blazing SE Asian sun while you were immersed in sadness and so far away from home. My entire current emotional life is left humming and thumping behind, bound up in these wonderful people who are my day to day support and networks, these thriving communities who have never met my family back home, who might never meet my college friends, who have only known me in the context of our shared life in whichever country where we met.

Because of this, I feel like entire years of my life just cease to exist when I go home, simply because the people and places and schools and students and experiences and values and goals of my daily life are unknown in the context of my home country. I feel, fundamentally, without a reference point or a touchstone. I feel, frantically, that I must either try to communicate all of it while also trying to see everyone as much as possible, or that I must just accept that it is impossible to communicate and then I struggle with feeling like I am reduced to being Cortney From Seven Years Ago, a person I am not, inhabiting Cortney’s Life from Seven Years Ago, a place I left for a reason. I want to connect so I reach far back in the depths of history for the point in time when I lived in Texas last- 2010. A long time ago. So then I occupy the past, which is now where I am and also not where my loved ones are anymore, anyway. This creates a warped feeling to all my interactions, like I am wearing a too small suit of the person I used to be, stripped of all meaning or reference, trying to connect through distorted mirrors with people from home- people who have also changed. 

Traveling back to Texas from Colorado- the beginning of what I did not know would be several years of traveling back to Texas for visits, but not to stay. 

Weeks into the visit, I find myself uncomfortably wishing I could just go home to my own apartment-life-job, not in Sweden, but in Texas, a magically instant life situation I could pop up and inhabit for comfort. I am essentially wishing for a distance within the intimacy of the visit, so that in some way I can assert that I am myself, independent, with a Real Life, not just a person who comes home with a bag and needs a place to sleep and doesn’t work over the summer. So even though I am content in Sweden (or Albania or Laos or Japan or even Colorado), I start wanting a different reality in Texas simply so that I can feel like a real person there and have authentic interactions with my family and friends. I don’t actually want a job and an apartment in Texas right now, or else clearly I wouldn’t be living in Sweden…but when I am home in Texas, I desperately want those things for context, so I can have relationships as Me, Cortney from Now, not a constructed narrative of a person patched together from postcards and Skype conversations and google voice calls layered over memories that are almost a decade old. 

It feels a bit like this.

This leads me to the inevitable- yes, of course, I did this to myself. Yes, I decided to leave. Yes, yes, yes. But what I am realising now is that if I am going to continue to enjoy this lifestyle I just have to let go of the need to have the life it has given me be fully understood or intimately known. I have to find a way to more comfortably interact with the strange experience that is going home. The truth is it goes both ways- I don’t fully understand or intimately know the daily life of my friends and family back home, either. This is a fundamental fact of living so far away, and it is a reality I have to accept in my current situation. Where I get stuck is thinking I can have both- my rich, full, meaningful life abroad, as well as a rich, full, meaningful life in Texas. I simply can’t. It isn’t good or bad, but it is. And at this point, I value so much my current experiences that I am willing to look this realisation in the face and say that for now, and for however long from now, I am without a present day context in my home country. I don’t know for how long that will last, but it’s real and wishing it away doesn’t change it. I am not a part of the daily rhythms there, and it is as absurd to expect to feel knitted into Texas daily life as it would be for me to expect my friends back home to feel knitted into Swedish daily life.

There is no life you can create that doesn’t have downsides. From being married or single, having children to being child free, choosing a certain career over another, valuing certain things over other things- nothing is without loss. We cannot have it all, we cannot even have close to a fraction of all of it. But the responsibility I bear is to own up to all of the consequences of my choices-not just the exhilarating, otherworldly satisfaction I experience when I throw myself into new places and succeed, or the abundance of growth I have known from that, or the friendships I have built in strange situations that have sustained me on a constant basis for years overseas, but also the fact that I do not live in Texas. I made a choice not to live in Texas before I even left America, when I moved to Colorado. And I made that choice, initially, with a naïveté that I could, through dedicated phone calls or postcards or FB interactions, maintain just as vibrant and complex a life in Texas as I have built here even though I am here and not there. And I simply can’t do it, it is impossible. No one could- proximity is an important feature for complex and close relationships that are informed by up to date information and interaction. And that has to be okay if I am going to continue to reap the benefits of the life I am so very proud of having pursued, this life of uncertainty and struggle and confusion and constantly kicking through the sandcastles of a routine to rebuild from the gritty wet foundation again. I want this life in a way I fought for and chose over and over again- this takes getting up every day and deciding I want it, with all the chaos it gives me. And I do want it, more than I want any other option. Nothing gives me more of what I need than this, and because that is true, I can’t greedily demand things from other places, too. 

I have a history in Texas, which is decades long, longer than any relationship I have made overseas, and that carries its own security. I might not have context there in the present moment, but history there means that I have people at home who have known me for years through good times and bad, who have seen me from childhood to now, and who always welcome me back with open arms when I come home. The fact that I have that to return to, and I have this current life of change and adventure and travel and learning to inhabit here, is luck of fantastic proportions. 

My past is my past, and it is never going to go away. My family and friends and Texas knew me and had me and loved me for almost 27 years before I left, just as I had and loved them. For the time being, that has to be enough, because I cannot do anything other than what I am doing right now. I have never felt more fulfilled, challenged, and expanded. I have never felt more free of anxiety and panic. I have never known how brave I could be, or how strong. I want to know more of those kinds of feelings, however difficult they are to come by, and however much I might have to acknowledge that in my pursuit of self fulfilment I have sacrificed, in some way, the right I have to feel deeply and intricately connected back home. I know I can always go back home, and that the history I have there is deep. For now I want to inhabit this rambling present and an uncertain future, and from here on forward I will work to embrace more honestly what that entails, in a way that honors my current reality and is understanding of the expectations I put on myself and others. I have a context, specific to where I am now. That is exactly right, and exactly where it should be.