Sunday, July 27, 2008

Whose dumb idea was this, anyway?

I've lived at 21 different addresses in my life (a couple of them more than once), ranging from a few months to a decade. And I've had 21 jobs at 17 different companies, ranging from a few weeks (temp work) to 3 years. I have a love-hate relationship with moving. I hate the hassle of it, and part of me hates the change (change is bad! love my routine!) but another part of me loves the change (new things to explore! get away from the people who bugged me at the last place! run away from your problems--if you run fast enough they can't catch you, right?). "Doing a geographical" is a habit I'm trying to break, because I've realized that I tend to bring myself and all my baggage (emotional and otherwise) with me, and I can also see the, well, mayhem is a bit strong of a word, but the damage it's done. I don't have a good support system set up, and I struggle with long term "relationships" with other people when I remain in the same city as them (and by relationships, I mean all kinds--coworkers, neighbors, friends, romantic types, etc). Plus actually, physically moving is so tiresome for us booklover types!

I'd honestly like to settle down and be a part of a community. In fact, I came to this realization some years ago, and my response was ... to move! Because of course, the community I was in wasn't the one I wanted to build roots in. And so, I arrived in Switzerland with that mindset, so I pretty badly was hoping I would love it (and fall in love with someone who could ease the work permit situation!) and expected I might settle down here. As I've blogged before (a, b, c, d), things didn't go as planned. And so I face another huge upheaval, fully cognizant that moving will not solve my problems, yet knowing I have to move to begin solving my problems. Well, I don't have to, but staying here just out of stubbornness (moving isn't the solution, so I better stay just to not-move) is a pretty bad reason to stay when I have literally no other reasons to stay (tramlove, sadly enough, is not enough to tip the balance). Argh! How do I get myself into these situations? Whose dumb idea was this, anyway?

Some big transitions in my life:
  • Age 7: parents getting divorced
    No, no, no starting this far back would make this a book. We'll move along. Anyway, insert the standard story here (one promiscuous sister, one goody two-shoes, all survive and grow up, eventually).

  • Age 25: ending first big adult relationship. Lived with an awesome guy for 7 years (all of college and a few years after).
    Whoa, long story. Most of us have been here. My transition involved exceptional quantities of alcohol, more than enough for a lifetime. Definitely (to misquote Dickens) it was the best thing that ever happened to me and the worst thing that ever happened to me. The 'ship needed to end, as we'd grown apart, and it ending led me to directions and opportunities I'd never have had otherwise, but boy hardy the transition was tough. Hadn't realized how much my identity had been wrapped up in the "us" that was no longer.

  • leaving south pole
    Going to south pole was fun. Dream come true, lots of self-pinching to see if it was real (really, though, the constant frostnip should have obviated the need for the pinching!). Leaving was tough. I'd lost the majority of my social skills (whaaaa? indoor snot rockets are considered rude? and my favorite thing to say was "noted" in this really dismissive tone of voice. That came from the weird habit people develop when being cooped up too long with each other with nothing to do: coming up to you and saying something either totally obvious or totally irrelevant. Like if I am eating dinner and someone comes up and says "you are eating dinner" or "you should eat the peas first, not the hamburger". I mean, WTF are you supposed to say to that? At first I'd whip out my little "green brain" (notebook we all carried everywhere to combat the severe memory loss we all developed) and my pen and pretend to write it down, saying "your input has been noted." Eventually that got shortened to a dismissive "noted".), and emotionally I was just shattered. I had had some high expectations about how my friendships would evolve once we left the station. People pretty much went their own way and I was "left" all alone and was incredibly bitter about it and felt very "abandoned". I now see this was a slight bit of distorted perceiving/thinking on my part, but that insight took several years to coalesce. I might add that I was a very bitter and unhappy person by the end of winter, so I'm not surprised (in retrospect) that nobody really wanted to be around me!

    I traveled the world for a couple months grudgingly and resentfully--we basically got a free round-the-world ticket (15 stops in unlimited countries), so everyone felt "obliged" to make a big world tour, but most of us were emotionally too wrecked to enjoy it. I spent two months circling New Zealand, basically dragging from hostel to hostel and spending a large portion of my time crying in my bed. I didn't speak to anyone, and I didn't laugh for about 4 months after I left (if you know me in person, you know that I laugh all the time).

    I came home, lived with my parents, and took up meditation, although at one point my dad said "if you get any 'calmer' you'll be dead!" because I was nearly catatonic, emotionally. It was weird, because I was clearly broken somehow and had little emotional affect, but I was working full time at the video store AND revising and defending my master's thesis, so I'm hard-pressed to call it depression (since it had no effect on my productivity, sleep, appetite or sex drive, nor did it cause the various kinds of bad thoughts that normally signify depression). I just simply had no idea who I was, and I mean that in the most literal sense. I was just broken.

    I didn't know what was important to me, or what I liked to do, or what kind of people I liked, or if I could trust my own take on events. A lot of this came from having been deeply invested in some perceptions of life/situations at pole that turned out to be different than I expected, leading me to no longer trust that I knew what I thought I knew, about pole or anything at all, actually. One example was about role in station life. I had thought I was a "good comrade"--I was funny, excellent at hanging out (seriously, this is a legitimate skill needed in order to survive 8 months in a cold, dark, isolated place!), involved in community activities, cooked dinner for the whole crew (50 people) several times (there were no meals cooked on Sundays, so it was fend for yourself from the leftover fridge most of the time), organized some social activities. Sure, I was a little non-plussed with the cooks, and I was vocal about my opinions, but the vast majority of the time I was simply saying what others were thinking but didn't say (I know for a fact this is true). At the end of the winter, we had a performance evaluation, and suddenly it turns out I was one of the worst crew members on station, several letters had been written to the station manager complaining about me, I had made the station a worse place, blah blah. There was a loud screeching sound as my grasp on reality broke. I mean, I know everyone tends to have slightly unrealistic views about themselves and how they come across, but this was too much. I suddenly had no idea who was "right", and if I couldn't trust my perception of events on this, then really, I couldn't trust anything I thought I knew, could I?

    Anyway, meditation firmly in hand, I moved to a cabin in the woods (although sort of also on the rural highway), to lick my wounds for a couple more years. Eventually I "humpty-dumpty'd" my personality back together, did some serious emotional surgery to cut out the festering wounds, and, well, I got over it!

    Mostly got over it. I have lingering health issues from that winter, and some permanent, well, brain damage is the only term for it: memory loss and slight cognitive impairment. My IQ dropped like 15 points over winter. Literally. I tested it. Most of that I was able to recover, but there are definitely things that I can't do or are harder for me to reason out now. It's scary, but in a way it's good because now when age-related mental decline comes, I won't have to freak out!

  • moving to Switzerland
    Hey, why not? How hard can it be? Ha ha. I went through the classic stages of culture shock:
    Arrival to 3 months: wow, this is paradise, OMG, this is the most amazing place ever!
    3mo-6mo: I hate this place, I can't find x, y, or z and everyone's weird and I'm tired and I want to go home.
    6mo-12mo: ok, some things are better here, some are worse, ha ha, wasn't I so hysterical the first 6 months in my opinions about this place!
    12mo-18mo: look at me, I'm still so sophisticated with my "living abroad" and "being so balanced in my perspective", but really, the idea of being an expat is so cool, I'm going to stay here for the rest of my life!
    Then I diverged onto my own path, which mostly was a self-reinforcing loop of

  • Repatriating
    This is the upcoming transition, two of them, actually. Returning to the US, and leaving research science to become a teacher. I'm excited about both of them, and a little nervous. I'm worried about "reverse" culture shock, although I haven't experienced that on my trips to the US since I've been here. What's far more likely to happen is I gain 20 pounds from a daily dose of gluten free donuts... (donuts! People, I had no idea it was so good in the US!) I find myself anxious and fragile right now--I'm not quite at the point I was when I left pole, where even breaking the lead on my pencil would cause me to burst into tears, but I'm definitely easily verklempt, especially around things that have been important parts of my journey here. In particular, I am finding the weekly Anglican/Benedictine Evensong (done in Gregorian chant) service that I attend to be pretty emotional for me, as this has been an important part of my spiritual life here.

On some level I feel like my experiences are not at all unique--what I mean is that all of us humans go through tough times and have emotional reactions. The particular details of my stories may seem more glamorous and exciting, but the same kind of profound changing and growing experiences can be had by someone who's never left their home town. Marriage, divorce, having a child, losing a child, changing jobs, or even just waking up one day wondering "who the hell am I? It was all so clear at 22" are things that can be just as powerful as any international adventure. I've learned a lot from my knitting, actually, about patience, correcting mistakes, accepting imperfection (and the wisdom to know the difference!), about process (the present moment, the journey) being more important than product (the goal, the future) and, hell, I don't even have to leave my couch to knit!

Of course, this doesn't diminish my delight in the details of everyone's version of the human experience. Because the details are where it gets interesting! I recently read Broken Open by Elizabeth Lesser, which is about these kinds of phoenix processes. It was a fascinating read--so many people, so many transitions! I can't wait to read the rest of this blog carnival!


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