Sunday, January 27, 2013
Tuesday, January 22, 2013
The Perpetual Expatriate
That would be me, I suppose. The word “expatriate” is often used to describe a person who has undertaken according to Webster’s, the action of: leaving one's own country, from Latin ex- + patria native country, that of one’s father. Also, BANISH; EXILE; to withdraw (oneself) from residence in or allegiance to one's native country; to leave one's native country to live elsewhere; also : to renounce allegiance to one's native country. I have on several occasions performed the act of expatriation, and for some odd reason seem to be likely to keep doing so. I have reached the conclusion that my expatriate status is if not perpetual, at least somewhat continuous in nature. It’s interesting that the two words “banish” and “exile” are mentioned, because those both seem to describe an involuntary (forced) state, whereas one usually thinks of an expatriate nowadays as someone who willingly seeks out and accepts their condition. Maybe self-imposed exile would be a more apt description, actually. I have, in all the places I have lived, and there are those out there who have moved around much more than I, nonetheless always run into people who are mystified by my drive to do such a thing…Pick up everything you have, throw most of it away, pack up the rest, and say gut-wrenching goodbyes because you’re going to a new place where you likely know not a soul from Adam, or at least very few people, and may have only been once, a few times, or not at all…I didn’t set out to have this vagabond life; but the first move came after about 12 years of marriage, then again at 25. This might seem to suggest the next move is due to occur around the 38th year of marriage, should we manage to survive, and still be sufficiently mobile, till then. I will be 59 or 60 years old. What new adventures will retirement bring?
Those people I mentioned I’ve met along my journey, the ones who can’t fathom why we are repeatedly VOLUNTARILY doing this, some of whom have never left their own country, region of the country, state, county, city, neighborhood, or even house, seem to be challenged at some core of themselves by our leave-taking. It’s not the coming that usually causes the ripple, but the leaving. And perhaps at the very heart of this is the very notion that many of us have, even though we know it is utterly irrational and completely impossible in this universe, that THINGS SHOULD STAY THE SAME. Why do we fear change? Why do we marvel at it, as if it is such an unnatural state of things, especially when things have been in a constant state of flux since we breathed our first breath of air on this planet? I can’t answer that, but I think that human beings can have two reactions to this feeling. Maybe the first reaction is the one that most people seem to have…they fight change, rail against it on general principle, and try to slow it down any way they can. Fight it! Maintain your grip on your little corner of reality at all costs! It doesn‘t work, but for millenia many of us have been trying. The second way to react might apply the most aptly to us expatriates…maybe we figure it‘s better to grab the bull by the horns, so to speak, and initiate change ourselves, rather than waiting for it to happen to us, unexpected, unbidden, and probably unwanted... Don’t fight the inevitable, but see if maybe, just maybe, you can have some small influence over the way it works itself out in your life.
Maybe we’re all just reacting to the same basic human need…just maybe? I can definitely speak for the opponents of change; I used to be one of them. I vehemently resisted any notion that change could be a good thing…what about tradition, laws, rules, expectations; weren’t these things worthy of being the standard bearer of? I tried, but failed to stop the machinations of the universe, the evolution (downward or upward, does it matter?) of the places I lived, the sometimes almost imperceptible changes in the people around me, of my own constantly adjusting reality. What does it all mean? Does it have to mean anything? Does it, really?
As far back as I can remember I was a child with a vivid imagination who preferred reading over just about any other activity, other than making up wild stories and telling them to my ever-believing younger sister. I was always fascinated by the idea of faraway places, both real and unreal, and the idea of going to them someday. And although there was a part of me that just wanted to have my safe little predictable and happy world to live in, and it labored really hard to hold onto that, there was this tiny “wild” part of me that thought “what if?” The “what if’s” were so scary and yet at the same time exhilarating. Why was that exactly? Why is it still that way? On the one hand I felt very loyal to the place where I was at that moment, and the people I was surrounded by, and on the other hand I wanted to get away from them with all my might. Strange paradox. I also grew up in a place, Texas, that people just don’t leave. Very rarely do they go somewhere else and not regret it or come back. Coming back has never been a consideration to me…maybe a passing thought, but how can you go back to what was…you can’t, can you? Isn’t life more like a moving stream than a lake? But as I was saying, I grew up in Texas, a place so beloved by so many that the story goes that when someone moves to Texas from somewhere else they love it with such a passion they can’t imagine being anywhere else, whereas the naturalized Texans look at this poor creature and say, “Pity you weren’t born here.” To which the new convert replies, “But I got here as fast as I could!!” In grade school every day we pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States, AND to the flag of the “Republic of Texas.“ I should add, of course, that I am the daughter of an extremely curmudgeonly hermit of a man….my father loved the idea of the human race, but the reality of it in terms of the individual people and all their idiosyncrasies, not so much. It was so much easier for him, and for me, to say we loved humanity from a distance. Still is. Thinking globally is so much easier if, at least in the metaphorical sense, you can mange to stay detached from the whole close-up ugliness of it all. So the idea of going away in a form of self-exile appealed to me from deep within my DNA. So I, like countless others before me, and countless more after me, move on. The whole rebellious, revolutionary sound of it….not toeing the line and being a part of the collective group, but thumbing your nose at the institutions and sacred cows of others and saying, “No, I don’t think that’s for me, actually…” appeals to many of us. The first part of my life I was a part of the “we vote for stability” group, or more realistically trying like the very devil to fit in and be that missing piece of the puzzle but never quite finding my niche. Where was my puzzle, and what was it a picture of, exactly? It doesn’t so much matter in my life these days because I’ve come to the conclusion that as long as I am working on MY puzzle and not someone else’s, I can finally be happy with where I am at. May not finish the puzzle…probably won’t, but that’s ok; I do believe there is an overall picture, and I don’t necessarily need to know exactly what it is to work on it for the time being. Putting together the puzzle of this life is not at all like where you have the picture on the box lid to guide you in putting the puzzle together…NO, nothing like that. I do hope someday in eternity I will get a glimpse at what my total picture is, though…that would be so nice, so affirming, finally knowing that it was there all along even if I couldn’t quite make it out.
So I left Texas amongst bewildered faces muttering, “but, but…what if??” EXACTLY. That was the point, but not in the same way they were thinking. Went to the West Coast…the LEFT coast as they call it…it was quite a culture shock at first. Going to California was like being doused with ice cold water actually, and then asking oneself, “DID I ACTUALLY ASK FOR THIS?” The strange thing is, what was once terrifyingly foreign, after a few years of living there became fairly commonplace and, dare I say it, “routine”, “expected”, and “the norm?” So we had to shake up the status quo once again and say, yep, it’s time to move on….still on the West Coast but further north, Seattle, Washington. We bought our first home, the intended purpose being this was the culmination of everything we had dreamed of, hoped for, and worked for. Now it was going to be gravy. Right? Wrong. It was a great ride, but restoring a vintage Craftsman bungalow with a right brained artist husband is not for the weak of heart….or hand as it turned out. I developed muscles I didn’t know existed with all the painting, scraping, plastering, lifting, grinding, sanding, digging, etc., etc…It was grueling. Then as we came near to finishing it all, transforming the cottage into the palace, the kingdom went to hell…the neighborhood, that is… You can’t have the perfect life if your environs are hostile, and they were beginning to be. By the time we finally summoned up the courage to admit and face it and do what was necessary to make change our friend and not our enemy, it was almost too late.
I received a message from God really. And I’m not usually one to believe in these types of things; they may happen to other people; Joan of Arc, for example, but not to me. But I know a divine experience when I see one, even if it DOES involve me, and I knew afterwards what had to be done. As far as Divine Intervention goes, by the way, where DOES that fit in? I’m not sure; I haven’t decided if the universe is like the ticking down clock of the Enlightenment or God is a more hands-on kind of Guy. All I know is I’m not taking any chances…I’ve decided while it may well be true that you can’t possibly miss what is your destiny, that it will happen eventually, in spite of your own efforts at times, I would rather not take the long, circuitous route to get where I’m going, as I’m only on this planet for a short time. Where my taking intiative is productive, I think I want to go for it. So, anyway back to the revelation. I was in the New Mexico desert near Plaza Blanco, a white limestone cliff formation that looks like, to me at least, a cathedral. I’ve always admired cathedrals. Not the actuality of them, and the ugliness of men’s institutions, but the idea of them…humanity reaching upwards towards the divine…the wonderful seeking, reaching-out energy behind that. Standing there in the desert that day I noticed the strangest thing, a SWARM of bees. I now know that bees swarm like that only rarely…as a matter of fact, only when they are looking for a new nest, a new home. The cloud of buzzing, hundreds of them, or was it thousands, coming towards me like an ominous black cloud. Then the pelting of their bodies against mine, against my big sunhat and my head inside it, as I stopped frantically struggling to get down from the big boulder I was standing on for a better view and stood absolutely still, waiting. As quickly as they came, it seemed, they were gone, gone to somewhere else in the desert that was designated to be their new abode, their new sanctuary for their time on earth, which I understand now is quite brief. It was never about me; they were on their way to somewhere else and I just happened, thanks to divine serendipity, to witness the miraculous event. It was a sign from heaven. We pulled up roots again, scratching out our St. Joseph statue from the dried dirt in the front yard of that beautiful old house and thanking him profusely for honoring our wishes and prayers to be somewhere else. We parted with a lot more past mementos, both physical and emotional…moving is good for the cathartic process of placing on either the theoretical or actual dump pile our once cherished belongings, hopes, dreams, ideas. You can only carry so much. Or you can stay put and try to squeeze it all within your four walls plus your rented storage unit. Me, I prefer to choose the traveling light version through this life, and I have a very strong feeling I will be traveling lighter and lighter as the journey goes on… You can’t stay in one place. Well, you can, but it’s not going to be the same place it was when you got there. So, when it’s the right time, throw out, pack up, and move on, and like the bees or the birds, migrate to a new more hospitable environment where you can not only grow, but maybe bloom and thrive while you’re at it. That’s my theory anyway…living life as an expatriate means never quite settling down in one place for too long; never letting roots grow down from your feet into the place where you are at; it’s an admirable, honorable tradition, settling down is, but I don’t think it’s for me.
Monday, January 21, 2013
Why is it that since I was a child, every Sunday evening repeatedly casts its dark pall of gloom and dread and throws me into an existential crisis and complete panic about every minute aspect of my life? The current circumstances of my life seem not to matter; it is constant experience for me. When I was growing up I could say that it was because of the torment of my school days and the inevitable dance to please and be accepted by my peers, then as a young adult, a succession of jobs which were drudgery to me except for the pay which allowed me to do something else; like go away to college or, after I married, pay the bills and eventually go back to college. Then in later adulthood I had some fulfilling but emotionally draining jobs that I dreaded going to every Monday that were undoubtedly a factor. For some years now I haven't had to work other than part time hours in the co-op gallery my husband and I are members of, and keeping up things around our house. Whether we are churched or unchurched at the time does not seem to enter into the equation. We are both people of faith, and yet, the familiar pattern repeats itself. Each weekend is heralded by Friday and endless possibilities, especially if it is a payday. Paying bills and having money left over is always cause for elation and a rosy expectant hope for the future. Saturday seems too short for all the wonderful things my husband and I could do together, including being lazy bums if we get the chance, and that carries over into Sunday, sometimes marked by a late big breakfast at home. Then late Sunday afternoon rolls around and BOOM, out of seemingly nowhere, it hits, even after the most idyllic of weekends. I've pondered it for years, but never come up with an answer. Why does life seem so much scarier before a new week starts?? There is even a song about lost love called Gloomy Sunday, written by a Hungarian songwriter in the 1930's and made famous by many world singers including the American Billie Holliday. Ironically, Hungary has a historically high suicide rate, and among the other countries that share the designation are the Baltic states. The songwriter himself jumped from a bridge in Budapest. I read that German and Swedish researchers found that the day is the least happy of the week for many people... There is that distinct feeling of unmet expectations. It is often referred to as the Sunday Blues....
"Many people get stressed about work, especially in this tough economy. For some, these pressures escalate from worry into disabling anxiety—about chores undone at home, tasks not completed at work, or weekend time simply vanishing too quickly. Symptoms can start as early as Sunday afternoon and may include a sense of impending disaster, irritability, insomnia and the physical expressions of a panic attack, such as racing thoughts, perspiration and even heart palpitations. As real as it is to those who experience it, the Sunday blues do not constitute a psychiatric condition, says Larina Kase, PsyD, a business psychologist, author of Anxious 9 to 5 (New Harbinger Publications, 2006) and founder of SundaySyndrome.com. “Because it's not a clinical disorder, it's hard to quantify,” says Kase, a former faculty member at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania who is now in private practice."
I'm glad to hear it's not a clinical disorder, and relieved that others besides me suffer from it. I don't know if that makes it any less distressing, but I suppose it makes me more aware of the limitations of being human. No doubt we all feel like there is so little time and so much to do, and that everything we do should matter in some way....So how about we ponder this quote by Albert Einstein?
Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow.
Thursday, January 17, 2013
You often hear people say the expression, "TOO MUCH INFORMATION," especially when someone reveals something extremely personal. This may be TMI for some of you, but it's my blog and I can say what I want to. I am feeling a lack of enough information lately. Specifically in reference to a couple of medical conditions I have been diagnosed with. After much frustration at the differing opinions I keep getting, I have decided I am going to go for genetic counseling. In March at my next yearly physical (which is a bit of an oxymoron at this point because I definitely go to the doctor MULTIPLE times a year) I am going to make a demand for a referral to such a practitioner. I am being asked by multiple specialists to make some decisions that I feel are going to all affect each other in a holistic way, and straightening out my family medical history and what genetic components I have been gifted with will, I feel, will help me to make the best choices. The conditions in question? Atypical ductal hyperplasia (of the breast tissue) and adenomatous colon polyps, which place me at a higher risk and a more frequent screening schedule for breast and colon cancer, combined with a knowledge that my mother died from uterine cancer. There are other cancers on that side of the family that may have genetic links as well I have learned. For all that the medical community now knows about cancer, it still seems to be nebulous when the cells in question start becoming cancer. Is what I have pre-cancerous, abnormal cells, transitional or very, very early stage? Is the question "whether" it will become cancer or rather "when?" A matter of semantics perhaps, but let me tell you when it's your life you are talking about it gets personal. And when you lose a parent to cancer, unless its cause is obvious (say, lung cancer from smoking), it gets your full attention... I'm only 49, and I am not ready to check out of this race prematurely, unless forced to do so. So there. Big raspberry.
Saturday, January 5, 2013
Ok, I am going to make enemies over this, but it has to be said. It's not that I dislike fiction per se, it is just that it is SO difficult to write it well, and most published authors do such a crummy job of it, despite their best-selling status. I know, I know; since when in history has the popularity of something been in any way linked to its quality? Nevertheless I would feel remiss if I did not point this out. To write a plausible, believable, affecting work of fiction which appeals to the better, not baser instincts of mankind, is not only very hard, but most probably very unprofitable and unpopular as well. That said, I acknowledge that others have as much right to their opinions and tastes as do I, but I get weary of being castigated for not liking bad works of art, whether they be literature, film, fine art, or whatever. At the risk of being labeled a "wet blanket" I will list a few such examples....the Twilight Series (vampires in love), Downton Abbey (soap opera with a posh accent and a quasi-historical setting), Life of Pi (spectacular special effects to make you forget it's an bitter agnostic diatribe against God), and nearly everything on Oprah's reading list. I fail to understand why popular fiction seems to have to be either incredibly insipid or incredibly violent and disturbing.
I also dislike the feeling that I am being emotionally manipulated. You know the feeling....you're watching a move, reading a book, etc. and you get very sad, or angry, indignant, (or you fill in the blank) at exactly the place the author intends for you to. And it's dreadfully obvious what he or she is trying to do. Or sometimes it's not obvious, but disguised as something else to make the message more palatable. That's not good writing. Neither is it good writing to wring all sorts of emotions out of your reader or viewer just because YOU CAN. Too many of the shapers of popular culture are control freaks at best or sociopaths at worst. My husband has worked in the entertainment industry since 1997 and we are constantly amazed at the attitudes of the people who are creating the "entertainment" that we as a culture devour so avidly... Oh, and while I'm on that subject, let's have a little more respect for the seriousness of events such as the movie theater shooting last year, the recent school shooting, and others. Hollywood's elite shows their sympathy for victims by postponing a film's premiere and foregoing knowing their box office totals for a weekend. Big whoopie-doo. Then back to business as usual. How about acknowledging that violence in art, especially films, is part of the problem and some lasting efforts to change that? That the creative choices you make can and DO affect other people? No? I didn't think so. Why is something inappropriate at one time (right after the violence) and appropriate again later after things get back to "normal?" I heard this piece on the subject on NPR:
And before you say it, "Yes, I HAVE read and/or watched portions of the works I mentioned above. So I'm not just talking off the top of my head. But sometimes it just isn't worth the damage to my psyche and sense of well-being to risk exposing myself (or anyone I care about) to these works of art. And I have a degree in history, so I am quite aware of the fact that works about it too, can be quite subjective. Just not as stupidly so as most fiction. Give us who like to have at least one foot in reality a break. You'd find it hard to make this world livable without us.
Tuesday, January 1, 2013
"Remember Death." It doesn't sound like an appropriate topic for the New Year, but it actually is. In these days of examining one's life and making "resolutions" about one's future, what could be more apt? The recurring theme in the history of art, which I studied extensively, reminds the viewer that life is short, bear that in mind as you go about your day, every day. It is depicted in different ways, sometimes as a lush assemblage of beautiful items in glass and silver and gold, laid out with ripe fruits and other luscious foods as one sees in the Netherlandish Old Master still life paintings. Sometimes it is more obvious, the portrayal of a skull, or specifically a winged skull, which signifies life after death. The Puritan gravestones in New England show this motif quite often, but it originated much earlier. The concept dates back to antiquity, most probably ancient Rome. In the Bible, the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes says that "all is vanity." Paintings, such as those done in the Netherlands in the vanitas style were meant to remind viewers of the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death. Common vanitas symbols include not only skulls and the above-mentioned items, but also, other more subtle reminders of the certainty of death; rotten fruit, symbols of decay; bubbles, which symbolize the brevity of life and suddenness of death; smoke, watches, and hourglasses, which symbolize the brevity of life; and musical instruments, which symbolize brevity and the ephemeral nature of life. Fruit, flowers and butterflies can be interpreted in the same way. Over the centuries many clocks were marked with the phrase "tempus fugit" or "time flies."
I wear a ring with a winged skull on it. It was designed to be a mourning ring, which has some historical precedent, worn in remembrance of a loved one lost to death. 2010 was a year of much loss for me; my first cat died, my mother died; I moved away from a house where I thought I'd live until I died, but it didn't turn out that way. I went through a year after that filled with the anxiety of a cancer scare, punctuated by many trips to the hospital for tests, X-rays and MRI's, followed by biopsies. By December 2011 my husband and I decided the time was right to do something we had talked about for over 20 years...going to Colonial Williamsburg for the Christmas holidays. It was wonderful. And in the silversmith's shop we found the ring. It seemed to speak as a reminder of everything I had been through, and of everything that really mattered... I know many people who see it don't understand but it's more for me than it is for anyone else. I am the one who needs to not forget....As we begin another New Year, may I always remember.