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.