The 2nd Best Decision I’ve Ever Made

How many decisions do you make in the course of your life? Cereal or toast? (Neither) Coffee or tea? (Coffee) Open the bottle of wine or not? (Is it Friday? Then yes.). Life is chock-a-block with decisions, from the mundane to the momentous.

Every now and then you’re whistling along happily enough, tearing through the mundane decisions like a boss, when you come face to face with a giant one.

Marry me?
Should we start a family?
Should we buy a house?
Should we open the 2nd bottle? (Is it Saturday? Then yes.)

Sometimes they’re expected decisions you’ve been sort of prepping for your whole life, but sometimes they come out of nowhere.

In the back of my brain I knew my husband’s job might offer the opportunity to move overseas. But you know, when you’re talking about it, it’s all sure, great, what an adventure! It’s in the future. It’s the abstract. It’s not real.

Until he comes home one day and says, “Hey! There’s a job opening in Cyprus. What do you think?”

What did I think?

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Have I told you how much I love NYC? Really? I mean have I really told you? Have I told you how the city boogied down deep into my bones until it became part of my DNA? Have I told you…oh, I have?

Forget Leaving Las Vegas, if there was an alcohol sopped memoir movie of this mid-section of my life, we could call it Leaving New York.

Leaving the city of my heart, where I fell in love, got married, had my babies…was tough. Like drag me away tough. Kicking and screaming tough. New York, man. It gets into your blood, it seeps into your pores, it worms its way…but enough about New York because I was leaving it.

On a jet plane, with two kids, a couple of suitcases, and a plan of action so loose it was jiggling like my post-baby muffin top.

And then there I was, in the middle of The Mediterranean. Me, my two kids, and a Yiayia down the street named Poppy. That was it. Me and a Greek Cypriot Granny. My entire life turned upside down because one momentous decision we made sitting in bed on a sunny Sunday morning while our second son slept a few feet away in our too small for two kids apartment.

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For the first year, I was convinced it was, quite possibly, the worst decision I’d ever been a part of. Worse than the plaid pants with the ribbed yellow turtleneck get-up in 3rd grade. Worse than my hair in high school. Worse than every shitty financial decision we’ve ever made. (Note: Should you buy the one-bedroom apartment? Hell, yes you should).

I cried because I missed the election of Barack Obama. I cried watching the ball drop on New Year’s Eve. My mother and my sister came to visit us and when they left, I ugly sobbed on the sidewalk as the car pulled away. It was…not good. It was in fact, bad. Really bad.

Of course things improved, even within that first year. As nice as Poppy the Yiayia was, I made friends who were slightly closer to my own generation, more Breakfast Club than the Early Bird Special club. But still, it wasn’t until after we left Cyprus and, if I’m honest, well into our Copenhagen cycle, that I started to really think about the decision we made all those Sundays before.

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It’s not always easy being an expat. There are times it is appallingly hard. Being a family unit without the support of nearby relatives as a buffer can be–well, let’s just say intense. Family time, I am often caught saying, is overrated.

Some things about it actually are great. Being abroad has given us an opportunity to bond in a way I’m not sure we would have had if we’d stayed in NY. I’m not saying we wouldn’t have had a bond, it would just be a different one. This one is born of living a specific experience all together, simultaneously.

Our horizons? Not broadened as much as exploded.

I’ve learned to stop fearing change, and, dare I say, embrace it. Or at least more so than before. I’ve gone so far outside my comfort zone, I’ve gotten jet lag. Bizarrely, I’ve learned how to relax. Let’s just say I’m now type B- rather than type A.

Is it Friday? Drink the wine.

Living as an outsider in a country that isn’t yours, when you don’t speak the language, or understand the nuance of the culture itself, often at the mercy of a job, teaches you nothing if not this: you can’t control everything. Some stuff yes, other stuff, no. I think, for a long time I got them mixed up.

It’s taught me that I really only truly need the people I love around me and a decent wine shop. Should we open the wine? (Is it Sunday? Sure.)

Being an expat has taught me how to offer my friendship..and receive friendship in return. It has redefined my concept of home, on every level imaginable. It has honed my criticism of my own country, but it has also deepened my love of it.

It has given me an understanding of being the odd one out, of being on the back foot, of having to pay attention. It’s deepened my appreciation for difference, from the minor to the major.

It’s taught me how to bake from scratch and how to live with less choice, and how to start using cloth napkins because paper products in Denmark are stupid expensive. Also that I don’t know how I survived as long as I did without an electric kettle.

It’s taught me that when someone is meant to be in your life, you find a way to make sure they stay in your life.

No dinner, no drama.

This decade long adventure has allowed us to get to know each other in a completely unfettered way. It’s just us over here. No insulation. All family, all the time. No Sunday dinners, but no Sunday drama either.

It has, quite honestly, fundamentally changed who I am as a person.

For the better.

So as I meander through the mundane, bus or train? (Bus) Pizza or Thai? (Pizza) Should we open that bottle of wine? (Is it Monday? Then no, you big lush), I can look back at some of the momentous with more clarity.

That decision we made all those Sundays ago, saying yes to taking that chance? It hasn’t always been easy, but it was probably the 2nd best decision I’ve ever made.

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The Everyday Activist

In a musty, dusty corner of my brain, there resides a card catalog full of bold names and deeds. Those names and deeds are cross-reference with my own subjectivity and experiences. When I need to, I do a mental flip through until I get what I’m looking for.

When I hear a word like activist, my brain hums along. A loose definition forms, gossamer and ghostly, until it eventually takes shape and I am left with something concrete. A name, an example.

Activist: Rosa Parks. Dolores Huerta, Ida Wells, Cecile Richards, Audre Lorde, Tarana Burke. Flip, flip, flip. More names.

Nowhere in that catalog, not even at the very back, not even in the margins, does my own name appear.

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So what makes an activist? Is there a set of criteria which must be met, a level of activist activity, akin to one of those strongman hammer do-dads at the town carnival, which must be reached before one can wear the label?

I’m sure I’m not alone in envisioning activism with a capital “A” and an exclamation point. An all-encompassing noun involving sweeping gestures and noble sacrifice. The word conjures ideas of single-minded crusades, 100% dedication, and bold acts.

How many times can you screw in a lightbulb emblazoned with the word ACTIVISM before you think of yourself as an activist?

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The day after the US 2016 election I set up an ongoing monthly donation to Planned Parenthood, an organization of great importance to me. If anyone asked me what I wanted for Christmas I pointed them to the Center for Reproductive Rights. I ramped up my funding for political candidates whose ideas and ideals I could get behind.

Still, I didn’t consider myself an activist.

I marched in 2017 during the Women’s March, but also in 1992 in Washington, DC for reproductive rights. In the late 1980s I marched along the streets of NYC in black, high-top Adidas during Take Back the Night. I marched against the Gulf War, with young men I knew, men just tripping into adulthood, whose eyes reflected their fear that a war none of us wanted would reach out its greedy fingers and mark them irrevocably.

Still, I didn’t call myself an activist.

I write and publish essays about feminism. I regularly bore the pants off many men…and women… highlighting gender bias. I endure countless eye rolls as I patiently work my way through the nuances of the wage gap. I introduce new-fangled terms like the Motherhood Penalty. I use my social media platforms to speak out against harmful policies. And I have raged, oh, how I’ve raged, both privately and publicly, each time we take two steps back in this tango of equality.

Yet still, I don’t use the word activist to describe myself.

Perhaps, however, my definition is too narrow. Perhaps…just perhaps…I should be embracing my personal acts of activism. Activism with a lower-case “a” rather than a capital. With a quiet sentence ender rather than an exclamation point.

The everyday activism.

And perhaps…just perhaps…if we all did that, instead of assuming that what we do is too little, too late, or too insignificant, there would be enough excitement to warrant that exclamation point after all.

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There are times when you face the mountain and the mountain seems un-scaleable. What is one person, one act, one small thing going to do? When one lone person takes their canvas tote to the supermarket, is it really going to help the Earth? Is it going to make a difference to climate change?

It’s difficult to fit you and your small, canvas tote into the bigger picture.

Is my ten dollars a month going to make a difference to Planned Parenthood? My fifty dollars a year is, after all, merely a drip in the coffers of the ACLU. My body, one of thousands, will not be missed if I don’t march. My voice, one among thousands, will not subtract from the din.

But if we’re all kicking the can down the road to others because we think we can’t make a difference, if we’re putting out a small spark because we’re not comfortable carrying a torch, does that torch, regardless of who is carrying it, ever stand a chance at staying lit?

Imagine if a young Ruby Bridges, walking to school under the protection of federal marshals to desegregate a Louisiana classroom felt one lone girl wasn’t enough. Imagine if Shannon Watts thought one mother crusading to change the way we look at gun laws thought one mother wasn’t enough. Imagine if Dolores Huerta had assumed that one woman alone could not make a dent in the fight for farm workers.

What would we be left with?

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There are hundreds of ways to help force change in the places we believe need change. We can donate money or fundraise to help others do so. We can give our time, our talents. We can add our bodies. We can show up. We can call out.

At the end of the day, I am but one voice, a whisper in a sea of noise. But if  I add my voice, my whisper to the lone whispers of others, if we all do that, it becomes a scream too loud to ignore. And so I continue. Not because I expect to change the world all by myself, but because if there are a hundred other “me”s out there, a thousand, half a million, think of the possibilities.

We are all activists, intentional or not, when we stand up for change we believe in. When you carry the tote bag, when you call out sexism, when you join a march, when you donate to a cause. They are acts of everyday activism.

The exclamation point doesn’t need to be there. The capital “A” doesn’t need to be there. A thousand small, everyday acts become bold when they are taken together.

Find the cause or causes you are passionate about, find the things you want to change. And fight for them. Fight for them a little, fight for them a lot. Fight for them in ways large and small, but don’t ever think those acts, however everyday they seem, aren’t making a difference.

You have a voice. And if you use your voice for change? Well then my friend, you are an activist.

And don’t let anyone, least of all yourself, tell you differently.

Vive la Révolution

No one expects a revolution.

Oh sure, uprisings are almost always the result of powder kegs of inequity and frustration built up over time, but no one can accurately predict the stray match which lights up the night. Who would have predicted a dearth of French cake or a shipload of too-taxed tea would be straws that broke the camel’s back?

Or a Hollywood mogul.

Glance around girls and boys, we are in the midst of a revolution, though it’s not the one promised or predicted. It’s not the one coveted by ethno-nationalists or the one hoped for by far-left socialists.

Don’t be fooled. The cascade of sexual assault allegations which are coming down as thick and fast as Niagara Falls? It is nothing short of a revolution. It is a seismic shift in the conscious thought of a nation, or at least, a good chunk of a nation. To move, seemingly overnight, from dismissing the concerns of women to not only believing them, but holding the men responsible….well, responsible?

That is a tectonic shift of attitude. That is a revolution.

Sexual harassment is nothing new. Women have been coming forward with allegations of contact ranging from inappropriate to rape for decades. They were kind of/sort of/maybe/sometimes believed. Yet even when we, as a society did believe them, the power structure remained intact. Nondisclosure agreements and arbitration, out of court settlements and gag orders, or just garden variety misogynistic I think women make shit up for the hell of it. Maybe there was a slap on the wrist or a reprimand, a closed-door meeting with HR. But more often than not, not only have women’s concerns, allegations, and evidence been largely sidelined, covered up, and ignored, but the men accused have faced zero consequence.

In fact, not only have they never faced any real consequence, they’re often rewarded.

Casey Affleck settled two sexual harassment suits. He was awarded an Oscar. Chris Brown beat the shit out of Rhianna. He sells out concert venues. Roman Polanski raped a 13 y/o girl. He’s the recipient of several lifetime achievement awards. Woody Allen. Mel Gibson. Charlie Sheen. That’s just Hollywood. That’s before we get to publishing, finance, tech, academia.

Congress.

Like the roving hands of a serial groper, sexual harassment is everywhere. And powerful men who have had their hand in the cookie jar of women’s bodies, psyches, and pockets? They’ve been allowed to slide, chocolate chip crumbs all over their face.

Yet now, suddenly, there are consequences. Real ones. Not just financial settlements, but actual consequences. Powerful men who have abused their power and victimized women are being outed, fired, shunned, dropped.

Fox News’s Roger Ailes was a chink in the damn. Harvey Weinstein blew a whole in it.

And here we are, drenched in the downfall.

Women have long become accustomed to not having their stories believed, to having their motives doubted, their pasts dragged through the public. To suddenly have people believe them is both shocking and confusing. It is a welcome change, a long overdue and needed change, but one which drags with it in its wake a host of questions and uncertainty.

Perhaps there are women who were expecting it. I’ll be honest: I wasn’t. And like those street urchins standing below a tri-colored flag at the end of Les Mis, I don’t quite know what to make of it all.

It’s glorious and affirming, but also scary as hell.

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Human beings are complex and flawed. Both men and women. Add the dimensions of sex and power to that and our relationships become even more complex.

And here we are, standing in suddenly abandoned enemy territory, a flag ready to plant. New map lines must be drawn. What is acceptable, what is not? There will be gray areas that are fought over as fiercely as Kashmir. Does a photo depicting a violating act = a violating act itself?   Does a forced kiss = grooming a fourteen year old? Is there a hierarchy of shitty male behavior? And more importantly, the realization that we, as women, must turn inward and contemplate our own questionable feelings and shitty behavior.

What we need is time to figure it all out.

In a revolution, time is a luxury you don’t have.

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In any major cultural shift, there is a period of panic and disorientation. There are snap judgments and on-the-ground decisions, some of which will turn out to be wrong. When you start dredging the depths, you’ve got to wade through a lot of muck and sludge. You’re going to take a bit of it with you, no matter how hard you try to scrape it off.

Revolutions are a messy business. People are going to get hurt. There will be fallout. Once the dust has settled, a lot of soul-searching will be required. It will take a massive amount of long, hard work to remold the status quo.

And this is where we must be smart. We must take our time and redraw the map of acceptability and accountability. And that requires women to look at their own behavior, their own process, their own complex relationship with sex and power. Because if history has taught us anything, it is this: if you drag out a guillotine and start demanding heads, you run the danger of having that guillotine sharpened and readied for your own.

These are terrifying and exhilarating times. The potential seeds for great change are being laid. All that remains to be seen is which way the wind blows. Away from us, toward that arc of justice…or back in our face, dirt and all.

 

 

The Weight of (Moving Around) the World on Your Shoulders

Atlas 2I write a lot about my life as an expat, but usually through the window of my own experience: that of the non-earning partner.

It’s not often I delve into what it must be like for the catalyst expat. The one whose job brings you to another country, whose carefully negotiated package determines everything from where you live to how many times a year you get to go home. The one upon whose shoulders rests the weight of the world, quite literally at times.

We first packed up and moved with the peacekeeping arm of the United Nations. We bypassed all the shit postings you often have to get your feet mucky in on the UN circuit. We skipped the war zones and zipped past the just-finished war zones. We circumvented the countries without stable governments and landed, pretty softly, in what’s generally considered the cherry on top of the whipped cream atop of the UN peacekeeping cake: Cyprus.

I hated it, at least for the first year. I hated it so vehemently and vociferously that it became a running joke at my husband’s office, where they would often great new staff with a variation of the following:

Welcome to Cyprus, the posting everyone’s trying to get into, expect for X’s wife, Dina, who’s trying to leave.

I was so far up my own ass for those first twelve months it took me a long time to realize how my unhappiness was eating away at my spouse, who had assumed responsibility for my misery. It wasn’t a question of letting him as much as it was simply not being aware that it was going on. Yes, my head was that far up my ass.

There’s plenty of expat guilt I carry with me, but not the guilt, worry, and stress shouldered by the one responsible for pin-balling a family around the globe. My go-to joke is that starting work in a new country means a new office, a new cafeteria, and maybe a new stapler, but that essentially going to work is going to work, no matter where you are. That’s oversimplified, of course. Getting used to working in a new environment can be terribly stressful. Add in a spouse who is unhappy, kids who are crying because they miss their friends and eating unknown cuts of meat every night and well, is it any wonder expats seem to drink as much as they do?Atlas

Good friends who moved recently tallied the stress levels involved in picking your family up and repositioning them around the globe. Three months of packing up/leaving/worrying stress on the old end followed by three months of unpacking/settling in/worrying stress on the new one. Six months of feeling unsettled and a lot of the time, unhappy. If you move every two years, that’s a quarter of your life navigating the sea of stress with nothing but a flight home to paddle your way upstream.

That’s a lot of stress. It’s not good for your heart. Or your liver if you self-medicate with wine. Or your marriage.

I’ve joked (and been serious about) the anger some feel toward the working partner, most often as a handy stand-in for companies who like to toss employees around the world like rag dolls. But I’ve never really stopped to think about what it’s like to be the one on the receiving end of that anger or unhappiness and how much it has to affect the quality of their life.

Though we generally (knocking on every piece of wood I can find) don’t have to worry about cutbacks and layoffs as much as some (there’s never any shortage of war or disease), it’s a legitimate and sobering worry for other expats.

Redundancies are uncommon in the international civil service game, but Copenhagen is a hub for the oil industry, which is experiencing major cut-backs and lay-offs and sayonara, we-can’t-afford-you-anymores. We’ve watched families step off the plane get turned back around, a package and a pat on the back, others made redundant just as they were settling in. Some have been here for years, considering it home and suddenly they’re out of a job.

Obviously losing your job sucks whether you’re an expat or not, but the added of stress of losing your job, or potentially losing your job, when you’ve carted your entire family overseas is not something to be sniffed at.

Sometimes it’s the hard-to-shake worry you’ve made the wrong decision. Feeling as if that decision rests squarely on your shoulders, shaken-not-stirred with watching your partner and kids struggle to settle. Those things are HUGE. To absorb responsibility on one set of shoulders is enormous. And usually, unfair.

Atlas 3As much as I like to wax on/wax off about our crappy health insurance or paint the fence with the layers of common sense which are sorely lacking when it comes to expecting families to move around the world in 8 days, the sole responsibility should not be placed at my husband’s feet or on his shoulders, regardless of how broad they may be.

We are partners. In marriage, in parenting, in the topsy-turvy world of living outside our countries. We went into this beautiful mess together and we’ll shoulder the responsibility together. In the nearly eight years we’ve been doing this, I’ve pulled my head out of my ass long enough to see that.

If Atlas shrugs, shaking us from one continent to the next, we’ll shoulder the weight equally.