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.