The Magic Quilt of Expat Life

I’ve been an expat for nearly ten years. Blimey, that’s a long time; long enough to start using the word blimey in a non-ironic way, even. Nearly ten years overseas means I have said more than my fair share of goodbyes. I’ve gone to a lot of leaving lunches, farewell festivities, and tally-ho teas. I’ve drunk kegs full of coffee, ingested numerous kilos of cake and watched the resulting kilos materialize on my ass. I’ve given speeches, listened to speeches, presented gifts, bought gifts, assembled slide shows, written songs.

I’ve done it all.

It never gets any easier, not really. I almost always cry.

Not big, gulping sobs, though sometimes it has come close. But that sort of crying when you can feel it coming down the track: the tight throat, the sting behind your eyes, the stuffed up nose. It bears down upon you like a freight train and there’s little you can do to get out of the way in time. A whistle of warning, someone choking on a word, and that’s all she wrote, folks.

A room full of weepy women.

I wrote a post a long time ago about the importance of not crying during these things. Five years later I’ve changed my mind.

Cry, cry, cry.

Cry a river if you need to. It’s good for the soul. More people should cry. And more often.

Newsflash: Women cry. We cry when we’re happy. When we’re sad. When we are frustrated or overwhelmed or raging like a menopausal witch (No? Just me?). We cry over car commercials and Christmas commercials, during movies and reading books. We cry when someone else’s kid’s feelings get hurt. We cry at the very idea of something happening to someone we know. We cry when we meet our family at the airport, when they leave, when we fight with our partners, when our kids say something hurtful. We cry as we watch our kids walk across a graduation stage, when someone else’s baby is born, when things go awry.

We cry.

So, when you get a room full of women in a room, women who’ve spent a few years getting to know one another, giving each other rides and acting as emergency contacts, getting to know each other’s kids and families, seeing each other through difficulties and partners working in other countries, clinging together for dear life on this life boat of friendship in a foreign land–when you get a room full of women like that together and someone gets choked up? You almost always end up with a room full of weepy women.

These ritual goodbyes and all the emotions they evoke is a kind of exquisite torture. It’s incredibly poignant to hear stories and reminiscences, to look at years worth of pictures, to see the evolution of expat friendships play out in celluloid. It’s like watching a time-lapse of a child growing up.

I’ve been tasked with putting together a few of these slide shows. When I do, I always include a montage of people who have already said goodbye, though it’s becoming increasingly difficult for me to remember whose paths have crisscrossed after this many years, whose lives have become entangled with whose. But I do it so that those folks, the ones we’ve already said goodbye to, remain a part of the whole. A panel that when stitched together with all of the others makes a quilt of a certain time and place.

It’s one of those magic quilts that keeps on growing.

Saying goodbye is hard. We should cry. And laugh. And rejoice and give thanks and feel sad. This is the reality of our life. Sometimes it can seem like the life of an expat is glamorous vacations and non-stop parties, but the edges of a life lived outside the borders of your own country can be rough. It’s just that no one takes photos of all those tears, those rooms full of weepy women, and posts them up on Facebook.

But maybe we should.

As a storyteller, it’s an incredible privilege to hear the stories that belong to others. As a human being, and a friend, it’s humbling when I get to be a part of that story. A panel on someone else’s quilt.

So many times those stories start off with feelings of loneliness and isolation, feeling stranded and out-of-place, nervous, unsure footing on choppy seas that are taking you far away from everything you know. And then the magic: one day, one coffee, one conversation, one friend. The tide begins to turn. The seas calm. Coffee doesn’t slosh out of your cup when you’re trying to drink it. You look around, and far from being alone, you’re at a table for forty eating kilos of cake.

 Just look how it ends: a room full of twenty, thirty, forty, sixty people who have put aside a chunk of their day to celebrate a friend, a friendship, to say goodbye and good luck. It ends in a room full of women to whom you mean enough that they hold back a tear, wipe a wizened eye, choke back a sob. A panel on that magic expat quilt that never stops growing.

Just look what you mean. 

Blimey, indeed.

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Parenting In Between The Lines

Pick up any book about Mom-ing or Dad-ing and it’s usually full of the deep, dark, and diabolical bits of parenting. Temper tantrums and teen angst. Potty training and puberty survival tips (mental note: post idea). All important, but there’s a lot more that goes into this parenting malarkey than just the big stuff.

I want my teen to sail through the hormonal tsunami that is puberty…or wait..is it just menopause? Anyway I want him to be a grounded teen but I also want him to be able to tell a joke. I want my ten year old to use a knife and fork, but I also want him to know what to do or say when Great Aunt Betty gives him socks for his birthday.

This is parenting in between the lines.

Things like…

Telling a story. The other day my teen came home and told us a tale. And it was funny. Properly funny. And it wasn’t just funny because the subject matter was amusing. It was funny because he told the story well. He didn’t get hung up on every tiny little detail. It wasn’t peppered with “ums” and “likes.” My husband and I looked at each other over the silverware and one of us may have wiped away a tear.

Story telling, or how to keep your audience from stabbing their eye with their fork is in the style of Oedipus is something we work on with our kids. 3 salient facts and move on. And while we don’t have an actual gong or one of those giant, shepherd hooks to yank them from the dinner table, we have been known to make a buzzer noise and tell them to move the story along. Small, but important life skill. Not just with stories, but imparting any important information. Just like….

Dealing cards. Someone had to teach you to always deal to the left, didn’t they? Bet you never thought of it before. But it’s one of those things you realize how wrong it is when you’re kid starts dealing willy-nilly across the table. You have to learn skills like that, mostly so that you don’t make an ass out of yourself the first time you pretend you know how to play poker. Skills are important. As are facts. Facts like…

Where food comes from. A while back I read a statistic which blew me away. 7% of Americans think that chocolate milk comes from brown cows. After I picked my jaw up off the floor and cleaned up the coffee I spat at my computer screen, I finished the article and realized something I’d never thought about before. Someone has to teach you where food comes from. No wonder kids think chicken comes from Market Basket and ground beef from Netto. If that’s all they’ve ever seen, heard, or known. There’s no a priori knowledge about the fact that your juicy double bacon burger was once Bessy the cow and Peppa the pig. Someone’s got to teach you that milk comes from cows. And that chocolate milk comes from Nesquik. Teach your kid where food comes from. If for no other reason than to avoid being an embarrassing statistic. Speaking of embarrassing…

Joke pacing, another not so crucial but handy life skill. Knowing how to pace a joke, how to read your audience? It takes practice. Practice with your kids. You know why? Because no one finds “knock knock who’s there turtle poop in a tree” funny after the age of three. After three you can also work on teaching them things like…

How to get out of eating a meal you don’t like. We keep trying to tell our kids that politeness and compliments may not get you everywhere, but they’re going to get you pretty far. So, if you ever have one of my kids round to dinner and you hear, “Wow, this looks delicious, thank you so much, you must have worked really hard,” there’s a good chance they’re trying to tell you thanks, but no thanks, I hate fish.

I’d say I’d like to teach them how to know which one is a fish fork and which one is a shrimp spoon, but well, I don’t know myself and it’s hard to teach something you’re pulling out of your own ass at any given moment. But luckily there are plenty of things I do know. And not just that chocolate milk doesn’t come from brown cows.

Now, let me tell you a story…

 

Buy One, Get One of Lesser Value Free

Last week James Cameron caused a million female eyeballs to roll skyward when he opined that contrary to what millions of women were proving with their dollars, Wonder Woman was not a strong female protagonist. Cameron then went on to list female characters he felt were better representations of strong women.

It should come as no surprise he listed his characters from his own movies. (See: Sarah Connor form The Terminator franchise)

It should come as no surprise I spent hours  I will never get back spent arguing with strangers on the internet.

Fast forward and the word on the corner of Hollywood and Vine is a remake of Lord of the Flies. The catch? It’s going to be made with girls instead of boys! How very…

Wrong?
Frustrating?
Odd?
Blindingly oblivious?

The entire premise of Lord of the Flies is a rebuke of the toxic masculinity endemic in English public-school mentality. Once you consider that it seems odd to try to remake it with..girls.

Come on, Hollywood!  You can’t remake Lord of the Flies with girls without changing the entire plot. Because girls? Wait for it….

are not boys.

An island full of girls would not behave the same way an island full of boys would. They would organize themselves differently. That is not to say they would sit down and sing Kumbaya around a campfire braiding each other’s hair, but it would be a different story. You know why?

Because girls and boys, women and men are not interchangeable.

You can’t give a woman arm muscles and a giant gun and call her a strong protagonist. You can’t swap out girls for boys and say, “look how feminist we are!”.

I accept the blame for a lot of this confusion, and what I must assume are well-meant intentions. There seems to be a general misunderstanding regarding equality and equity. Perhaps it’s the framing of the feminist message itself.

Because in our strive for equality, what we sometimes neglect to mention is this: we are not trying to be interchangeable. We do not want to be swapped out for boys. We do not want to take the place of men. We don’t want or need male assigned characteristics simply transferred to us and slapped with a sticker proclaiming “equal”. We do not want to be judged on whether or not we can compete with, act like, govern like, or look like men.

Women don’t want to be men.

What we are looking for is equal value.

A woman with defined biceps is not necessarily strong, just as a man without them is not necessarily weak. What so many women right now are seeking is not apples for apples equality, but apples to oranges value.

Feminists are looking to reframe what is viewed as important, good, worthy, valued.

Men, on the whole and individually, have their own ideas of what strength is. Those ideas often differ from a woman’s idea of strength. And that is ok. What’s not ok is assuming one is better than the other, assigning one importance and the other half-off status.

This is what many feminists are talking about when they speak of assigning value.

I don’t want to be a man. I don’t want to look like a man, or act like a man, or pretend to be a man. Neither do any of the women I know. Writing or creating women with masculine characteristics does not automatically confer equality on women (I’m looking at you, Brienne of Tarth). Taking a story viewed through a masculine filter and merely swapping out the sexes does not make for a compelling story.

Why?

Because we have our own stories.

Male stories are often epic in scale. Physical journeys across ice caps and continents. Covered wagons and perilous ocean journeys. The drive to explore, conquer. Stories of courage in the trenches and theaters of war.

My disinterest in those stories does not take away from their value. It is merely to say this: there are other stories which are no less important simply because they may not be as grand in scope.

Often the stories of women are the stories in between the lines. The ones left behind to continuously mend the fabric of a society rent by constant war. The stories of the sometimes small, but excruciating choices women face to keep their families safe. When we watch movies about the horrors of war, it is often confined to the horrors of bloodshed and battle. Rarely are we exposed to the internal horrors faced by those left behind, the ones tasked with keeping not so much the home fires burning, but the will to continue.

How often do we hear the stories of the internal struggles of women to manage their own desires against the weight of motherhood? How often do we see movies about the quiet friendships of women which sustain them through the perils of their own lives? While male stories are told through the metaphor of chasing whales and galloping to poles, women’s stories are told in tea leaves and conversations.

It’s ok if men are not particularly interested in those stories. I get it. I’ve never been interested in Apocalypse Now or reading Hemingway because those stories, told through the filter of maleness, simply do not resonate with me.

What I resent is those male stories being the yardstick from which everything else is measured. What I resent is the implication there is something intrinsically wrong with me because I don’t enjoy David Foster Wallace or The Big Lebowski. That I am lacking the intelligence to appreciate these very masculine stories or that the stories I enjoy, watch, read, and yes, write, are merely a derivative. Less than.

If stories are buy one get one half-off? Women’s stories are the cheap designer knock off.

When I speak of equality, it is this: I want our stories to count as much. Not more than. Not less than. Equal value.

What I want is to acknowledge that our stories are just as valuable to the human experience and deserve the same space. I don’t want my stories merely to be a copy of or a derivative of, the stories of men.

I want them to be valued in their own right.

Buy one, get one of equal value.

 

 

 

 

 

Both Sides Now

Death and LifeYesterday, as competitors in the Ironman Challenge raced past our apartment, pushing their bodies to the limit of endurance, I was slowly cycling toward an afternoon meant to celebrate the life of a woman who endured in a different way, who pushed her body to a different limit.

I knew about her long before we met. When she first got sick, she was the center of a buzz of activity: meals were cooked and delivered, the dog walked, company provided, magazines collected. I’ve seen this hive at work before, women swooping in and taking a slice of another woman’s burden as her own. It amazes me every time, and makes me grateful to be a part of this womanhood.

Over time, as her illness ebbed and flowed I met her in person, but it was through these pages she got to know me, and I her. Somehow these words and sentences reached out and connected us in the way that stories have been connecting humans since the beginning of time. Our shared experiences became the thread that tied us together. The knots were newer and looser than the ones which connected her to others, but no matter. Once tied, you’re forever knotted into the fabric of a life, no matter how loosely.

Recently her body reached its limit. All those binds and ties and knots were teased apart and released, but not before they came together one final time to weave a rich and colorful tapestry. Yesterday was meant to be a celebration of that tapestry–of that life–and I was honored to be included.

Yet as her husband talked to us about her wishes after death, I felt sightly fraudulent. Surely all of these people knew her so much better than I had, surely they were more deserving of this celebration. He continued, shifting between Danish and English, and I caught the song playing in the background.

I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now,
from up and down, and still somehow
it’s cloud illusions I recall.
I really don’t know clouds at all.

It’s impossible for me to associate Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now with anything other than the moment Emma Thompson faces the truth of her husband’s infidelity in Love, Actually. It’s one of those snapshots of everyday life which make you question if love–and fear and happiness and anger–all the emotions that boil and bubble together to make a life, are worth the pain of loss. The soundtrack to that scene is part funeral dirge, part broken heart. It is mournful, haunting, and rueful, the warble of a woman who has seen, lived, loved. And lost.

We’re allowed merely a glimpse of pain before the character swipes at her eyes, straightens the bed sheet, and throws open the door with a forced smile. Endurance of a completely different kind than those athletes hurtling toward a finish line.

Those sixty or so seconds of music and emotion get me every, single time. Yesterday was no exception.

Yet the day was not about mourning a death, but celebrating a life. There was food and wine, music, bright colors and funny quotes. No one seemed to be weighed down by the mantle of her death, what there was instead, present in every breath, was life. Hers, and ours, and in that moment, the culmination of the two.

Both sides now. Life and death, before and after, with and without.

At the end of the afternoon I cycled back home. The athletes were still going, doggedly pedaling by, pushing their bodies to the max. Most of them had a literal marathon still in front of them. It is a stamina I don’t possess, but then perhaps, none of us realize the strength we have until we are tested. Endurance, after all, comes in many forms.

fly free

To swipe at your eyes, straighten your bed sheets, and throw open the door to the unknown.

Is it worth it? How can it not be? I hope that when she threw open that last door it was not with a forced smile, but with the knowledge that her life, though ended, will still live on in the knots of ours., in the stories we tell to connect to one another.

I hope that as she crossed that finish line, the promise of both sides beckoned.

Fly free, Trish. May you look at clouds from both sides now.