Speed Equals Distance Over Time

Living far away from family does funny things to what should otherwise be a straight forward equation. Especially when it comes to speed. And aging.

Yes, I’m quite sure speed gets ramped up when you factor in long-distances and divide them by time spent with family.

I see my mother and sister twice a year. Once here, once there. It’s not ideal, but it’s more than a lot of expats get, and so for that, I’m thankful. But when family visits are limited to bi-annual hugs and semi-yearly dinners, you notice the passage of time more acutely–etched out on a loved one’s face, in the gray of their hair or the stoop of shoulders. And that’s just me.

Each and every time I face it I am slammed with the inevitability of time. And distance. And the speed at which they seem to be colliding.

Time? Time is a wall I keep trying to scale, but instead of climbing it, I keep running into it headfirst, knocking myself most of the way to unconscious.

And distance? Well, distance is the one thing in my control.

I don’t get homesick very often, not anymore, but I do miss my family. I look forward to their visits, and to mine. In my head I map out great big plans to relax. We’ll laugh and have long conversations and go for long walks! We’ll spend quality time! The kids will be gracious and happy to see their family and actually converse with them instead of retreating behind a screen anytime I leave the room!

I worry that the reality is….less than great. Or relaxing. I think I may come across as…well, for lack of a better word, grumpy. Instead of being all hunky and dory, sometimes I get snippy and snappy.

Bear with me. It took me nine long years to figure this out.

I realized I must come across as resentful. Or annoyed. Or just garden variety grumpy-pants. The truth is, there’s often an emotional orgy going on in my head, decisions battling reality–decisions which benefit US, but sometimes come at the detriment of extended family.

So when I’m being snippy, it’s sometimes because I’m fending off  the guilt that come with choosing to live far away. Sometimes when it seems like I’m short-tempered it’s because I’m trying to gauge how long can I justify keeping the grandkids away. If it seems like I’m a bit low on patience, it may just be because I’m trying to calculate how much longer I’m going to ask my mother to get on a plane for Christmas. If it seems like I’m sulky, it’s probably because I’m trying to remember the formula to figure out how time speeds up when there’s a greater distance involved.

I think my brain switches into efficiency mode due to overload. And efficiency mode? Well, everything gets done, but sometimes at the expense of emotion. AI’s got nothing on me when I switch over to efficiency mode. Just ask my husband.

Sure, there’s Skype and FaceTime, and it definitely helps, but expats know that E.T. was right: phoning home is really just a substitute for being there.

Then the trips are over. Bags are packed, flights checked-in on, passports stamped. It takes me a few weeks to recalibrate my emotions, to pack them all back into the neat boxes they live in. I get caught up in day-to-day dramas and hourly ados and I’ll sit down to put my feet up and suddenly it’s Sunday, or summer or six months later. And I gear up to do the whole thing all over again.

I’m in the midst of all that now. Long enough removed from the family visit to be able to take a step backward and say “Ah! Of course that’s why I was such a miserable Mabel, because I worry about how our choice to live away affects you. And you’re getting older. And I’m getting older. And the kids are getting older. And oh, my God, for the love of all that’s holy make it stop.”

Eventually I guess the scales will tip one way, or another. But there are few weeks a year when they swing wildly from one side to another, bouncing up and down.

Every time I watch my mother say goodbye to my kids something small inside me dies. Like that flower in ET, the one that wilts and falters. But…. I also know this. You know the final scene of ET? The one when Eliot is crying and Gertie has snot running down her face and ET is about to get on his spaceship? He touches his light-up heart, then points his long, wrinkly finger at Eliot’s head and says…”I’ll be right here.”

It doesn’t matter what the formula is for calculating distance, or speed, or even time. Because that’s where we are.

We’ll be right here.

 

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Goodbye Sucks

airport-signEight years of expat (migrant) living has thickened my skin…to an extent. I can generally hold it together at the flag ceremonies and stand un-quivering through a chorus line of hugs. Depending on where on I am on the roller coaster of emotions I find myself riding these days, you’ll find me anywhere from stoic to sniffly, but I’ve gotten adept at saying goodbye.

Despite the increasing alligator hide thickness of my skin however, goodbye always sucks.

Yesterday I said goodbye to my mother and my sister and my in-laws who had all come to celebrate an early holiday with us. My mother and I had the inevitable conversation, the one about our next moves on the chess board of migrant life.

They are questions for which I don’t have an answer. I wish I did, but I don’t.

If I had to hazard a guess, there would be several phone calls between my mother and myself that stand out in her mind:

Hey, Mom, I met a guy!
Hey, Mom! We’re getting married!
Hey, Mom! I’m pregnant!
Hey, Mom! I’m pregnant (again)!

I know the one she is waiting for now, the one which will likely round out her top five:
Hey, Mom! We’re moving back!

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And yet I can’t make that call and I can’t even tell her when I may be dialing it in. There are too may cogs and wheels spinning that are keeping the whole mechanism running to separate out just one and answer it with any certainty. Why am I telling you all of this? Because all of this makes something which sucks on its own suck even harder.

Like I said, goodbye sucks.

They suck on either end, whether you’re staying or going. They suck the life out of you as well. Every time I see my mother (once every six months or so), I am walloped over the head with the fact that she is six months older. Then, as soon as I raise my head from the first blow, I’m blindsided by the fact that my kids are six months older as well. And that everyone will be six months older the next time we are all together.

And if you’ve ever felt the swift passage of time, let me tell you, when you’re only working in six month chunks, it’s like doing the time warp.

Children get older…and less cuddly, less interested in making gingerbread houses with their grandmother or playing a silly game with their auntie. They get older and grow less interested in spending any real time with Granny and Granddad. It hasn’t happened–yet–but doesn’t take too much imagaination to envision a time when it will.

It could be in six months.

Or six months after that.

airportWhenever I say goodbye, after I get over my irrational fears about planes and fireballs and Bermuda Triangle disappearances, the real fears rush in to take their place.

My kids marching toward teenager-hood is an eventuality which supersedes where we live. But…somehow the idea of my headphone adorned teenager ignoring my mother once a month is more palatable than the idea of him ignoring her once every six months. The idea of my little one preferring a computer game over a game of gin rummy with his aunt tugs at my heartstrings a bit more when it’s only twice a year.

Yeah. LIke I said. Goodbyes suck.

 

I Know this Much is True

clock-face-hand-painted-on-antique-drum-table-Shizzle-Design-Grand-Rapids-Michigan-for-sale-aging-dust-cece-caldwells-smoky-mountain-vintage-whiteI cannot tell a lie. I did not wake up this morning and think, “Today I’m 44! Bring it on!”

44 is one step closer to 50, and 50 is half-way to 100, a milestone most of us will not meet. 44 is only one year from 45, which is the age at which I will undeniably be knee-deep in my 40s, firmly entrenched in middle age; no turning back, a different box on demographic surveys, a mere decade away from starting to receive brochures about retirement communities and hip replacements.

There are a lot of things that no one told me about being in my 40s. Things I assumed everyone was exaggerating about or that I never thought would happen to me. I never thought I would still be wearing a retainer, for one.

I assumed that chin hairs would always be kind of a jokey thing, that I would go gray gracefully in a nice controlled streak that I could then dye pink. I assumed that middle-aged spread was for other people, that bosoms were for grandmas. I assumed that losing weight would continue to be as easy as cutting out carbs for a week or so. I assumed that getting news of the death of peers or their fight against cancer would still be miles and decades away.

Though I may not have sprung out of bed with enthusiasm at the idea of celebrating the passage of another year, I know this much is true: Waking up today at 44 is, as the cliché goes, better than the alternative. Waking up today at 44 means I have been given the best gift I could be given: one more day. Another day to feel sunshine on my skin, to feel my boys’ arms around my neck. Another day means I have the opportunity to feel the warmth of my husband’s body next to mine, to roll into the protection of his arms. Waking up today at 44 means I have been given the gift of another day to ponder a cloudless sky, to enjoy the conversation of friends, to wonder at the world or create a perfect sentence.

The confidence I carry with me, the resolution that I feel, the mettle of my voice and words: those thing are hard-won. The lividity of the scars may have faded, but the battles were real. The wisdom that comes with experience, the calm that comes with acceptance, the peace of being comfortable in the who, what, where and when. All those things are the gifts of age. I know this much is true.

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I know which direction the wind of my life blows and I can chart its course. I cannot control it, but I can bend with it instead of being battered by it. I can recognize my strengths, can better avoid my weaknesses. I can believe passionately without the self-consumption which comes with being blind to alternative. All of these things are the gifts of experience. I know this much is true.

I am a better mother to my children, a better wife to my husband, a better daughter, friend, partner, collaborator. I am a better listener, a better problem solver, a better writer. That is the gift of having been around the block a few times. I know this much is true.

It is getting easier to accentuate the positive, to distance myself from the negative, to understand both sides of a story. Right now is a tipping point. I can choose to spend my time looking back, or I can choose to spend it looking forward. Understanding that dwelling in the past can stop you from moving forward into the future, understanding that time is not unlimited, that it will one day stop for you all together, these things are the gifts of getting older. I know this much is true.

In the end, having to slow down a little bit, having to replace a few body parts here and there, well…that seems a small price to pay for the gift of another day, another year, another birthday. The older I get, the more it makes sense.

I know that much is true.

 

 

Home Alone

imagesMy husband and I are often in different countries.  Sometimes different continents.  A few moves and working for an international organization will do that to a couple.  There are business trips and conferences, training sessions and summer holidays.  There is wrap up and set up of the old and new digs.  It’s never for too long, but long enough to make the heart grow fonder.  He crosses his heart/hopes to die/stick a needle in his eye that when we are apart, he misses us.  And perhaps after the first few heel clicks of freedom, the heaving sigh of relief at being able to watch The Great British Bake-off in peace, the gluttonous satisfaction of eating take-out three nights in a row, he does.  But he steadfastly maintains that after a day or two the novelty tarnishes and the space in between becomes heavy; the days more about killing time than wallowing in it.  I never really believed him.  He can’t very well turn around and say “Yes!  It is epically awesome when you guys go away!  I can drink beer and have frozen pizza for dinner every night and fart and burp and swear and leave untidy piles of paper around with abandon!

It’s no secret that I envy that time away from spouse and children.  A break from the norm, a break from the grind, a break from the every-day sameness.  But it has always been nothing more than a fantasy for me; a reality so remote from my own that it took on Holy Grail like proportions.  The idea of a weekend on my own, by myself, was so delicious that my mouth watered at the thought.IMG_4728

And then two years ago my husband announced he was taking the boys on an overnight adventure.  It was a last-minute trip, planned so that I could spend the day with a bag of chips watching Prince William pledge to love, honor and cherish Kate Middleton.  Normally I am content to read the stories and look at the publicity pictures in glossy magazines after the fact.  But for some reason, I was invested in that wedding.  I think it had something to do with all the hoopla surrounding her dress.   Regardless, I nearly wept with joy when he announced his intention to keep the boys out of the house and my hair for nearly two full days.  I realized it would be the first time in nearly seven years I would sleep by myself in my own bed in my own house.

I threw clothes and supplies in whatever I could find and packed bags full of snacks and first aid supplies.  I may have slammed the door while blowing kisses and waving goodbye.  I think my husband may have asked if I could contain my glee somewhat, for the sake of the children.  But, oh!  36 hours BY MYSELF.  I merrily cleaned the house and IT STAYED CLEAN.  I went to the mall (there wasn’t much to do in Cyprus) and I came home and THE HOUSE WAS STILL CLEAN.  I had a can of soup for dinner in my clean house and washed my one pot and one bowl and one spoon.  I had some wine.  I had some chips.  I watched a movie about a sparkly vampire and a sullen teenager.  I went to bed and got up early the next morning, plonked myself down in front of the television and watched continuous coverage from Westminster Abbey.  The wedding was lovely.  I was disappointed in the dress.

When the males returned, exhausted from adventure, smelling of unwashedness, knees scraped and smiling, I felt a burst of love.  For my children of course.  But also for my husband, for taking my children away for the night and giving me the gift of alone-ness.

In nine years, I have spent five nights by myself.  Two of those were the nights I spent in the hospital after giving birth.  But I am not petty, I shall count them.  Nine years.  Five nights.  Even my five year-old can do the math on that one.

This year when my husband announced he was taking the boys camping, I had an initial burst of euphoria.  I made a conscious decision not to do anything.  I would spend the weekend simply chilling out.  I didn’t want to clean.  I didn’t want to cook for company or go out with friends.  I had some work I wanted to do on the blog.  There is the book.  There was art to hang.  I toyed with the idea of putting my wedding photos in an album, twelve years after the fact.  Sure, there were errands to run and food to be bought but I had nearly two whole days in which to do it.  Oodles and doodles of time.

IMG_4729But a funny thing happened on the way to alone-ness.  The idea of spending the weekend alone began to weigh on me.  It didn’t shine with the same magic and mystery as it had before.  When your children are little and there is someone tugging on you or hanging on you or trying to climb into you marsupial style, space and peace are all you can think about.  But I get a fair amount of space and peace these days.  Even with the cleaning and the laundry and the food shopping and the errand running, the school stuff and the day-to-day maintenance, there is time enough in there.  There’s time to sit and contemplate.  To have a coffee with a friend, to write, to read, to chill out on a park bench in the sun for five minutes before it’s time to move on.  That is only part of it though.  Another is that I am a little jealous.  As mom, I am the one who is reminding the kids to do their homework and put their clothes away and make their beds.  I am the one who is smelling their breath to make sure they used toothpaste and sniffing their feet to make sure they’ve chosen clean socks.  But Dad!  Dad is the one who is taking them camping and letting them make fire and roast marshmallows and bait fish hooks and whittle sticks with sharp knives.   While the everyday stuff, the bone structure,  is what keeps the family from collapsing in on itself,  it’s not what my children are likely to remember.  When they are sitting around in ten years waxing poetic about their childhood, do you think they are going to remember how Mom used to check their backpacks for homework or how Dad let them cook hot dogs on a stick?

Fire trumps clean socks every time.

This time they were a lot more excited than I was.  And I realized, as much as they all drive me batty, I was going to miss them.

Photo:  fireplacemall.com
Photo: fireplacemall.com

Okay, maybe not the squabbling and having to cook, but just having someone else around.  Not just someone, but my someones.

Maybe my husband has been telling the truth all along.  Maybe he really does miss us when we’re gone.  The next time he Skypes us from the sofa, a beer in hand with a marathon of Master Chef playing in the background, I shall give him the benefit of the doubt.