life of m

Sustaining the Self and Beyond


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Remember the sloth. Be the snail.

Whenever I see an image of a sloth, I am reminded of my first honeymoon in Costa Rica. My first husband and I climbed a rickety, old watch tower and were held more rapt by the scene unfolding right in front of us than the panoramic view of the landscape behind us.

 

A sloth hung from the branches of a tree. It seemed, in fact, to be part of the tree, in body and in the tones of its body. Its hair had shades of white, brown, and green. I remember wondering if the green was actually moss growing directly on it.

 

 

 

If you have been reading my writing for some time, you may know that I have a naturally restless disposition. Staying still is no easy feat for me. My second husband calls me a squirrel on a regular basis. So, it was not small thing for me to be held rooted in one spot for at least 30 minutes, watching this creature.

 

The sloth seemed ancient as the tree it held onto both firmly and tenuously. We must have caught it during the most active period of its otherwise sedentary 24-hour period. It did a kind of sloth yoga in the tree before us, reaching out with first one and then another limb.

 

For a half an hour, I was still and calm. After it disappeared into the trees without even a trace, I vowed to remember the sloth to help me be still and calm. At times in life when I felt anything but these emotions, I wanted to be able to draw strength and perspective from the memory of the sloth.

 

Like so many experiences in life, the power and urgency experienced in the immediacy of the moment tends to fade in its wake. The memory of the sloth has remained, but it has not been as easy to remember the feeling of calm and grounding I experienced while watching it.

 

Since moving to Brussels, I have been introduced to a creature that offers a much more proximate and regular reminder to slow down, be patient, and persist even when life crushes you.

 

The snail.

 

I have seen many snails in my time in Belgium. They cling to garden walls, inch (centimeter?) along sidewalks, and move through dirt, grass, and forest. I seem to see as many crushed snails as I do living, though I have not conduced a formal study on the actual ratio and rate of survival of snails in an urban setting with vast swaths of pavement between often-tiny island oases of soil and vegetation.

 

To be honest, I am not sure how any snail survives against such odds. Each time I see a crushed shell, I bow to it, apologize, and share my express desire that it is in peace, wherever its snail spirit may be.

 

Being a homo sapiens, my shell feels even more tenuous and breakable. I have but a thin sheath of epidermis between my very sensitive heart, organs, and interior realm and the outside world, which seems to be sending wave upon unrelenting wave of shell-shattering energy my way. Countless times this calendar year alone, I have felt pummeled by the other beings with which I share this world. I have started to wonder about the ways I might create a stronger sphere of protection, my own metaphorical shell. Even a fragile one might help me to bear the force of the waves, at least enough to get across the concrete to the safety of an island of forest.

 

I am that compared to the snail, I am lucky in many ways. Even with my fragile exterior and even more delicate interior, I have an ability that the snail may lack: the ability to rebound.

 

The refrain from a song that I do not feel any particular ?? but that seems a propos for this rambling metaphor comes to mind:

 

I get knocked down, but I get up again

You’re never gonna knock me down

 

Of course, I feel like I get knocked down quite frequently, particularly these days. So, it is really only the first line that speaks most directly to my situation. The second line is more of a hope than a reality.

 

After attending a yoga workshop with master teacher, Jaye Martin, I found the words of a Lucinda Williams song running through my mind:

 

I don’t want you anymore
Cause you took my joy
I don’t want you anymore
You took my joy

 

You took my joy

I want it back

You took my joy

I want it back

 

These lines held a different kind of energy and a kind of determination different from the getting knocked down song previously mentioned. A person might yell out the lines to the first song with determination, but the singer of the second song doesn’t sing at all, they demand. I imagine the singer clawing their way out of a dark hole, coming up to the edge, dirt-encrusted fingernails reaching over the side, one hand at a time, and slowly, but with increasing confidence and determination, pulling themselves up onto level ground.

 

I can relate to the dirt crawling, the sound of a voice that practically growls from within, Get up. You want to choose happy? Choose!

 

Then, once you have chosen, get up off your sorry ass, put as much space between you and the one sucking the light and life from your spirit, and reclaim your joy by whatever means it might take.

 

Since I seem to be on a roll with pop culture references, how about the line from the movie, Elizabethtown, where the bubbly flight attendant, Claire, encourages the protagonist, Drew, to get over himself when he was roiling in self-pity after a shoe design he created cost the company he worked for umpteen billions of dollars and he subsequently lost his job, identity, meaning in life, etc.

 

According to Claire, Sadness is easier because it’s giving up. I say, make time to dance alone with one hand waving free.

 

And one more for good measure:

 

You wanna me really great? Then have the courage to fall big and stick around. Make them wonder why you’re still smiling.

 

I feel like I haven’t fallen so much as been crushed like my snail friends, but I know I am strong enough (and equally stubborn) to get back up, shift my perspective, and choose happiness.

 

For a snail (at least, in as much as I can determine from my observations), once crushed there is no coming back. For a squirrely human, there is more choice and strength of will involved in the return.

 

This week while traveling in Darmstadt, Germany, a place whose name literally translates to the intestine city, I have been dealt yet another crushing blow. I have to say, despite my determination not to be crushed by it, I spent a couple days in a dark place, feeling completely smashed to bits.

 

Each morning, however, with the sun shining and the promise of a large cup of coffee and possibility, I gather my pieces together in a pile, then gently lift them up to cradle them in my arms. I may feel broken, but I have all of my pieces. I also have my heart, an inner joy that is mine alone, and the desire to put myself back together.

 

As I have walked around the city

As I have walked around the city, I have been sent reminders of the snail within in the form of a bright yellow print of a snail hanging in a shop window and a silver pendant, which is no longer hanging in another shop’s window because it clearly wanted to travel and become an even more proximate reminder that I while I may not be able to choose how other people behave and that there actions do affect me, I can choose how I respond to their sometimes crushing blows.

 

I am clearly not the Walrus, and while I like the idea of embodying the spirit of the sloth and I am inspired by it, I know that I am also not the sloth. I can remember the sloth to help me keep the energy and impact of life forces in perspective, but I just don’t see myself ever being content to hang from the tree branches, swaying gently and peacefully. It isn’t me.

 

I am more a snail 2.0. I am stalwart, and I move through my life with fortitude and character. I am determined to find balance amidst the chaos, and I will be happy, even if it means crawling on hands and knees across pavement and broken glass to get there.

 

In other words, be peaceful and/but persevere!

 

 

 


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In the shadow of Shiva

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I spent this past weekend in a teacher training for Anusara yoga. The training was held in English, which was the common language for everyone in the studio. Before moving to Brussels, my husband told me that when he had gone on a PhD reconnaissance mission the city had felt very international. He had that right.

My first weekend of teacher training was kind of like studying yoga at the United Nations. There were people from countries around the world in the room and only two who were actually born and raised in Belgium. We had yoga representatives from Holland, Mexico, the United States, Finland, Italy, and Austria. If you add the people they were married to, we also had Estonia and Germany spoken for. Additionally, everyone spoke two or more languages fluently, and their English was far superior to my French. It was really quite incredible.

Fear ruled a great deal of my first weekend of Anusara training. It is ironic, since Anusara means opening to the flow. I am not a particularly roll with the punches kind of being, so there are many opportunities in each day and in each new venture for me to practice my yoga off the mat.

Was there anything really worthwhile to worry about? Not really, but my mind worked hard to find what little there was to fear. It began with my commute back and forth from home to the studio.

First, I was afraid that tram 44 did not exist. Then, I was afraid that if it did exist, I would miss the connection between the time that tram 94 arrived at the Musée du Tram stop and the 44 was slated to leave, since there were mere seconds to maybe a minute before arrival and departure times. Once I had made the connection from 94 to 44, I was then worried that I might not get off at the right stop. In fact, I did nearly miss the stop for Tervuren, but I figured it out at the last moment.

Successfully arrived in Tervuren, I then worried that I might not find the studio (I have searched for places that exist on Google Maps but are not actually present in real-time, at least not in this version of reality).

Fear does not serve much positive purpose, though I do recall my AP Psychology teacher in high school telling us that a healthy dose of fear or apprehension about a test can help you perform better. At this point in my life, fear only seems to make me a bit crazy; well, crazier than usual and not really the good kind of crazy (I had a friend tell me one time that I was fun wacky, so I guess that most of the time I am an acceptable kind of nuts). This was not one of those times, and I knew it. I was texting my husband every few seconds about every possible line item that might go wrong.

You are going to be fine…keep breathing…do some yoga!

When I still clearly was not taking this advice and then texted to ask if was annoyed with me, he wrote,

No…RELAX! That’s an order.

I then sent profuse apologies by text (seriously, I really need to stop apologizing all of the time).

My husband wrote back, it is fine. Now, just breathe and stop worrying.

If only! At least I was headed to a yoga studio, so the chances of my breathing and practicing surrender were increased several fold.

After a bit of wandering back and forth around the spot that Google Maps told me the studio was located but which seemed to be a street lined with shops across from a construction site, I figured out that I needed to walk down a little neighboring side street. There it was! A little brick building with a forest green square sign with a white tree painted on it. It would do Gandalf and Tolkien proud to see such a tree.

The sight of that tree did wonders for my spirit. I cautiously opened the door and was greeted by love and acceptance in the form of the studio owner, followed by the smiling faces of the other students in the class.

What if they don’t like me? I had asked my husband before the training. They all know each other and have been studying together for months. I am the new kid.

Don’t worry. They will like you, he assured me.

I was early to the training, benefits of not yet trusting the timing for getting places via public transit. I introduced myself to the teacher and made myself relatively scarce to allow him to prepare for the day. I chatted with the studio owner and learned that she was also American and had married a Dutch man and eventually moved to Belgium.

Much of the day was a blur, but I do recall being warmly welcomed by every woman in the training. One student offered to walk with me to help me find a local sandwich shop, even though she had brought her own lunch. We laughed and talked as we walked through the little town. The sandwich shop was a hilarious experience. There was a patisserie on one side and a place to order sandwiches on the other side. I had a time of it trying to order a sandwich and buy bread and a chocolate croissant for my sweetie. Finally, I brought everything to the register, but they would not accept my credit card. I didn’t have quite enough cash, but my new yogi friend was kind enough to lend me a euro.

Over lunch, three of us chatted away like little birds. During the training, I was met with smiles and kind words. By the end of the day, I felt relaxed and also exhausted.

Did you have fun? My husband texted me on the tram ride back. 

Yes!

 Yay! The other yoginis accepted you?

Yes!

Later in the evening, I confessed concern over whether I was good enough to be in the training.

What if I’m not good enough to be in the class? I have only been practicing yoga for a couple of years, and I have only been through the first immersion.

After dislocating my shoulder in college and experiencing recurring sublex in the years following the accident, getting up into a handstand is a bit of a frightening thought.

The next morning commute, I was a barrel of nerves again. I had gotten up early to add more rides onto my metro card, but the machine kept asking me for a pin that did not exist for my credit card. I looked up at the near full moon and wondered if the universe was having a little laugh at my expense.

My husband texted me, Practice tramming meditation…just try and “be”…it sounds like your mind keeps trying to find something to “do” and since you are stuck in a tram, it decides to “do” worrying. Instead, try meditating.

Ok, I wrote back. I love you. Please don’t leave me!

In addition to fear, low self-esteem, fueled by the voice of my inner critic, is my other constant demon. My husband offers grounding to my propensity to live in fight or flight mode for much of the day.

I won’t. Sit. Breathe.

I sat quietly on the tram, looking out the window at the blanket of snow on the ground and frost-covered trees.

Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.

I wrote previously that I have been sick for most of my brief tenure in Brussels. Having spent weeks on the couch and in bed, I was nervous about being able to make it through two one hour and a half morning yoga classes. While I was exhausted afterward, I found the movement grounding. It even seemed to help reduce the chronic cough I have been experiencing for over a month.

For each class, my inner critic was right there with me on the mat, however. Every time the instructor adjusted my asana, I could hear the voice of my critic.

He thinks you are not advanced enough to be in this class! Came the voice. Even with my little cough drops with little phrases meant to encourage, I felt discouraged.

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Despite the arguments from my rational mind, I listened to my critic. It is often easier to give in and to accept that people see the qualities in me that I fear the most worst in me than to believe otherwise. Over lunch, my new yogi comrades assured me that I had nothing to worry about, and I found my Self breathing a little easier.

By the end of the day, I was completely worn out and overwhelmed but also inspired.

It’s all practice, I thought to my Self as I hustled to catch the tram, walking carefully so as not to slip on the icy sidewalk. Practicing yoga in the Shiva room, I was reminded that Shiva is one who destroys and also creates. In my own life, I seem to move in the shadow of Shiva, uprooting my Self and leaving all that is familiar in order to create a new existence in another place.

Inhale. Exhale. Destroy. Create.

Yoga is a push and pull, and this is my mantra. My practice now is to accept and surrender to Shiva. Everything else will be revealed in its own time.

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Leaving is a severing

Your life is like a comic strip, my mother-in-law said to me this morning.

We were driving back from the Toyota service department, where I had just dropped of my Toyota Prius to have the horn repaired. You may recall reading about my husband’s and my recent journey from Arizona to Washington, which involved a near miss in Las Vegas. The accident was avoided by my husband’s super intense honking on the horn, which resulted in the horn getting stuck and honking non-stop. I think we caused a bit of a scene when we pulled over by a compound yard and my husband tried to figure out which fuse to pull out to get the horn to stop honking while I sat in the car trying to hold a contraption between the horn and the steering wheel that was comprised of a nail file that had been broken in four pieces that were folded together in order to keep the horn from honking. Any slight move I made and the delicate balance was knocked off, causing the horn to blare non-stop once more and my husband to yell from beneath the hood.

Ah, memories…

I spent the next week arguing with our auto insurance company that this was collateral damage from a missed accident and should thus be covered by our insurance plan. I eventually won, but it took my “Put your supervisor on the phone” voice and a lot of crossing of fingers and hoping for the universe to hear my pleas.

There is always something going on, my mother-in-law continued. I had already been joking that I was going to drive her to drinking with the seemingly never-ending litany of stressful events she had been vicariously experiencing since my husband and I arrived at her quiet home in a community just north of Seattle.

I agreed with her on the comic strip front. The trouble is, I think I would find it a lot funnier if I were reading about someone else’s life. My hope is that someday (hopefully, someday soon) I will be able to laugh about it all, especially when the royalties for my very successful book start rolling in.

I have spent a lot of time and energy finding creative ways to let go of my attachments. This is no easy feat because I get very attached very quickly to all kinds of things—human and otherwise—in my life. I joke that I could have easily written the book The life-changing magic of tidying up because I have literally been living that book for the past six years.

I have gotten pretty good at sending my possessions, and even some furry beings, on their own journey. Each time I enter into a larger life transition, however, I eventually hit a wall where I cannot seem to let go of anything else. In the Belgium or bust life transition, I am pretty sure I hit that wall a month ago, if not more, but still I have to find a way to sever several more tethers to my former life.

The next tether will be my car. As soon as the horn is repaired, which could be any moment now, I will drive back to the Toyota service department, pay for the repairs, give my car a hug and a thank you for taking care of me, and send it off on the next stage of its Prius journey.

Maybe you are like me, and you grow attached even to inanimate objects. At least, we think they are inanimate. Have you seen 2001: A space Odyssey? Can we know for sure?

Daaave….

I have never named any of my cars, but I still feel a bond with each one. This Prius and I have shared many miles and memories. It has kept me safe and surrounded me in its vehicular embrace through many tears.

Maybe you are thinking, it is just a car, and you are right.

It is just a car.

I am also just a human, albeit a very sensitive one.

I remember a friend telling me that I had set myself free to do anything with my life that I wanted. I was sobbing into the telephone at the beginning of my separation from my first husband.

I wanted to believe that my friend was right, that I was free, but I still felt so raw from the process of detaching myself from the tethers of a life that did not make me happy that I could not imagine the freedom and possible joy that might lie ahead.

Several years ago, I wrote a song with a friend, who shared the story of how painful it was the first time she left her newborn child in order to have some precious moments to herself out in nature. The chorus of her song began with the phrase, “Leaving was a severing, then the greatest joy.”

I recognize that shifting away from one path brings so many others into focus. It can be easy to get swept up in the comfort of familiarity and to grasp desperately onto anything that offers a sense of stability. I do this all of time and especially when I can feel the ground begin to shake and open up beneath me. No one wants to be swallowed whole.

On the other hand, I do not want to be owned by my stuff. I really do feel lighter with each item I send on its way. I also recognize the privilege I have experienced to even be writing about the challenge of letting go. I have been gifted a life where I have been able to choose what to hold onto and what to bequeath to someone else.

Nearly a year ago, I let go of a little part of myself when my husband and I decided to ditch our middle names in order to replace them with our given last names. We had taken the step to become a married couple in front of friends and family, and we wanted to create an even stronger feeling of being a team.

My maiden name became our middle name, and my husband’s given name our last name. It took me a while to decide how I felt about it. I was the one with the different last name, after all. How many people pay attention to your middle name?

As I have been writing about all of this letting go in order to transition from life in one country to another, I realize that there are some tethers worth holding onto.

I made a call to the Toyota service department to check on the status of the horn repairs to my car. As I told the receptionist my last name and spelled it for her, I realized how much it truly meant for me to share a name with my husband. Speaking the name and having it feel like a part of me, I was reminded that we really are a team, however far apart we may be right now.

I deeply I treasure the bond that has been created and nurtured between my husband and myself. It can be fragile and tenuous at times, but it a bond that we have both sacrificed and fought for.

So, while I prepare to part with my wee Toyota, I am thankful for the perspective this severing brings.

Hold on tight to what is worth holding onto. Be thankful for the gifts you possess, but do not let them possess you.

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Mission nearly impossible

In these days of global travel, most romantic comedies include an airport scene with some cupid struck person running through a labyrinth of travelers to profess their love just before the human object of their affection gets on the plane.

 

I have been joking for some time that the book writes itself when describing the insane process my husband and I have gone through to secure his long-term student visa for Belgium, but I didn’t envision him making a mad dash through the airport to make his flight to Brussels.

 

Had I only known what I know now several months ago when my husband mused, what if we moved to Brussels? Would I have done anything different? Probably not, but I can already imagine this portion of the movie of our lives. I hope they choose someone really good to play us. Maybe Kate Winslet or Drew Barrymore or Zooey Deschanel for me? Hey, no laughing now!

 

By now, I have kept you updated on the story behind how we came to choose Brussels for the next four years of our lives and some of the details of this process. I have not yet written the story of the visa because until only a couple of hours ago, it was still in process. I could just say that our experience gives new meaning to the expression down to the wire, but it would be less fun than telling the entire crazy story, right? So, here it is in all of its bureaucratic, indigestion-inducing glory.

 

It all started on a dark and stormy night…just kidding. There are not too many dark and stormy nights in central Arizona. The sun shines just about every day.

 

We did begin the visa application process at the start of monsoon season, and there were more than a few bolts of lightening and thunder strikes, literal and figurative, in the process. Our visa application process was definitely an unbelievable story of suspense and intrigue. It even involved bribing a mail carrier with cookies.

 

Moving overseas is not for the feint of heart, and the visa application process to move to Belgium is labyrinthine and pricey. My husband began studying the details of the application process immediately upon his return home from a trip to Paris and Brussels in the beginning of July. He made lists of all the steps, which were many. As we dove in full tilt, we started to get the feeling that because Belgium really didn’t want the likes of us or anyone else to move there. They have devised an entry process that will drive most people to the edge of sanity until they give up and go to Canada.

 

I imagine that most normal (and by normal, I mean sane) people stay home and watch movies with mad dashes through the airport rather than making the mad dash themselves. Of course, neither my husband nor I is entirely sane. My husband even has his own saying: Anything but normal.

 

For the long-term student visa application that we would eventually send to the Belgian consulate in Los Angeles, there were many different forms we needed to have signed and notarized and then sent out to get apostilled, which is the state level approval and confirmation that our notary stamps were legit.

 

Here is a list of the requirements we had to fulfill in no specific order:

 

  1. Get tested for one of several diseases to demonstrate that we would not be bringing any strange illnesses into the country. We chose TB; you know, just for fun and both came up negative. Phew!

 

  1. A bill of health signed by a medical professional. This was challenging because we had to find a health professional that would not charge us an arm and a leg since our health insurance had run out when my husband’s job ended on July 1. Even though I had just gone to a doctor for blood work and a wellness visit, I was told that I would need to schedule an appointment for that doctor to fill out the single page form because I would be taking time out of his very busy schedule to do it. That visit would have cost us nearly $300 plus another interaction with a less than pleasant medical professional. Finally, a friend referred us to her naturopath, who charged a very reasonable fee to fill out a separate form for each of us.

 

  1. Order an abstract of our marriage certificate that was no more than six months old. Thankfully, we just made the cut-off date since we were married on November 11 of the previous year.

 

  1. Order a copy of my birth certificate, also no more than six months old. This had to then be sent back to the state of my birth, Ohio, to be apostilled at the state level.

 

  1. Authentic letter of acceptance from the university in Brussels. This took an entire month after R was formally accepted into the program and many email communications back and forth with faculty and admissions to prove that yes, the faculty who agreed to be on his committee really did want him in the doctoral program.

 

  1. FBI background check. This was a doozy of a process that nearly kept the visa from coming through in time for my husband’s flight.

 

  1. Provide proof of income while in Brussels or tax documents from a financial guarantor in the United States. All of this had to be filled out on forms written in Flemish by R’s dad and his wife.

 

Applying for a visa became a full-time job. Each step alone became an in-depth and expensive process. Every time R reviewed the consulate site’s requirements, he found something new.

 

  1. Write a letter explaining why you want to move to Belgium.

 

Finally, we got everything but the FBI background check finished. R discovered that we could send in our application to the consulate without the completed background checks if we included tracking information and receipt as proof that we had submitted our application to the FBI for the background check. Actually getting the completed background checks in hand was another insane story. The last week of July, we mailed everything to the Belgian consulate in LA with prepaid priority envelopes to return passport and visa to us upon approval.

 

These were all of the steps we took just to send out the visa application. Then, we waited several weeks for a response from the consulate, telling us the components that were still missing and the ones that needed to be corrected and resent. For example, R’s dad and wife had filled our financial guarantor forms and sent tax documents for both of us, but apparently they could only do this for R. I needed to send my own proof of income and tax documents to accompany my visa application.

 

We went through several iterations of our plan for leaving our house and heading to Belgium. Initially, we thought we might drive to my parents’ house just south of Boston, spend a few days there, and then get on a plane together. We then found out from the office for international students at the university in Brussels, as well as the Belgian consulate in LA that this was not to be.

 

Because it was my husband applying to study in Belgium, it would be his visa application that would be processed first. My own visa would be contingent upon his getting approved and would thus not be officially reviewed and processed until this happened. My visa could take anywhere from two to six months to be finalized. Because we had finally decided that we would bring 1-3 cats with us to Brussels, my parents’ house in Massachusetts was out. My mom was allergic to cats, and we were not going to put our cats through the trauma of being boarded for that long nor did we want to foot the bill for this.

 

Our second plan was to drive up to the Pacific Northwest and stay with my mother-in-law in Edmonds, but we had to convince her that this it was a good idea to move into her basement with two cats that her dogs might want to eat for breakfast. Thankfully, she gave us the thumbs up, and we began planning potential departure dates.

 

Moving to another country was quickly becoming an all hands on deck family affair. It would prove to continue in this vein until the very last moment before my husband walked into the airport on the morning of September 10.

 

We booked our tickets out of Seattle before we received the news that my visa could take up to six months after my husband’s to be finalized. Flights that cost the fewest number of miles and added fees were going fast, so we tried to make choices on dates that seemed reasonable. My husband chose September 10 so that he would get to Brussels in time for a faculty retreat with the philosophy department that he had been invited to attend. It seemed feasible that my visa would come in not too much later than this, so I booked my flight for a month and a half after on October 26. This was one of the few remaining flights that were under 12 hours of flying time, which is the standard for traveling with live animals (the story of deciding to bring cats and the requirements for importing live animals to the EU from the United States is yet another crazy diatribe that I will save for another day).

 

So, are you still with me? Don’t say I didn’t warn you that this was a long process!

 

We were determined to make it happen. We had been telling so many people that we were moving to Belgium. We did not want to wind up unemployed in our house in Arizona, dreaming of waffles and fries. To be honest, up until a few weeks ago, I was more than a little worried that this latter possibility might become a reality.

 

The second week of July, we submitted our background check applications, replete with two sets of fingerprints that we had done at the police station in Prescott, Arizona. When we first sent our applications to the FBI, it seemed from their website that the turnaround time would be 2-3 weeks. I religiously checked my credit card online account to see for the appearance of the $36 processing fee from the FBI but to no avail.

 

A couple of weeks after submitting our applications, my husband decided to check the website a second time just to make sure. He was met with an ominous red warning box at the top of the webpage that read, Background check applications 12-14 weeks for processing.

 

It was this moment when panic and dread began to set in.

 

12-14 weeks!?!?!?!?!? That would put us well into October before R’s visa could be processed and approved. We would have to change our flights. He would miss the faculty retreat and the start of classes.

 

My husband sent an email to the FBI, explaining our situation and asking if our application might be expedited. The response he received was not at all sympathetic to our plight.

 

This is where other people might sigh and then just wait for 12-14 weeks to go by. I mentioned earlier that we are not normal. Well, we are also not ones to just sit around and wait for bureaucracy to catch up. Trusting the process is not our MO, and it was a good thing that we didn’t or my husband would still be in Edmonds, waiting with baited breath.

 

My mother suggested that we contact our local senator to see if their staff could communicate with the FBI on our behalf to expedite the process. I rolled my eyes in response, not because I didn’t think it was a good idea but more because I just did not have faith that a politician would actually do something on their constituents’ behalf.

 

R wrote a letter to Congressman Gosar and received a positive response. He needed to fill out and sign a liability form that would allow the congressman’s staff to advocate on our behalf. We didn’t hold our breath, but we felt some faint glimmer of hope through our fog of despair.

 

I can’t remember how long it took, but eventually R received word from the congressman’s office that someone they knew at the FBI could retrieve our applications if we sent the tracking information. Tracking information sent, their person at the FBI walked down to the mailroom and found our applications, which had been sitting there for nearly two months. Don’t even get me started on our reaction to the news that they had just been sitting there. They would probably be still be sitting there now if we had not started raising our voices from the peon peanut gallery.

 

My husband was told that our applications would be processed that very day and mailed priority to the address he provided for his mother’s house in Washington. I checked my credit card account online and saw a charge for $36 fee from the FBI and breathed a sigh of relief. It was starting to look like things were moving in our favor at last.

 

Something we have learned in this entire process is that every time we get good news, it tends to be followed by bad news. Two steps forward, five steps back, we have joked. Just as we prepare to celebrate, we are stopped in our tracks.

 

After seemingly endless house repairs, packing, and scrubbing our house from floor to ceiling with sponges, we packed our Prius to the brim with our bags for Belgium, three cats, and whiskey (if we were not drinkers before the visa process, we certainly were now), and we headed north for the Pacific Northwest.

 

The trip was mostly uneventful, save for a near accident in Las Vegas, which my husband avoided by slamming his fist on the horn so hard that it got stuck in full honking mode. Now, I know what you are thinking. A Prius horn cannot be that bad, but a Prius horn that does not stop honking after a near miss collision is enough to send anyone over the edge (and we were already at dangerously high stress levels from the past several months of limbo, visa hell, and moving preparations).

 

My husband was able to fashion a device that would make MacGyver proud by breaking one of my nail files into four pieces folded together that, when inserted in the space between the horn and the steering wheel managed to stop the horn from honking just long enough for him to pop open the trunk and take out the fuse to quiet it permanently. It was difficult for me to hold the device in place. The tiniest shift in energy on my part set the horn blaring, my husband jumping and yelling. We definitely got some strange looks from the people walking by to get into the towing facility next to where we had pulled the car over.

 

I did some research on Google and was informed that taking out the fuse was typically all that was needed to reset the horn and resolve the problem. However, when we arrived at my husband’s mother’s house and we went to replace the fuse, the horn returned to full blaring alert status.

 

Seven hours in diagnostics at a local Toyota dealership, and the mechanic was still nonplussed as to what had happened and how to fix it. The only solution he could figure out would be replacing everything having to do with the horn for the tidy sum of $2100.

 

We called our auto insurance company to look into the possibility of filing a claim. It had been by avoiding an accident that the damage had been done, after all. Maybe, we would be rewarded for not having gotten into the accident.

 

After an hour on the phone with adjusters, we were filled with hope that we might not have to dip too terribly far into our precious savings accounts. Then came the call telling us that an appraiser would not be coming out to inspect the car because the damage was a result of normal wear and tear.

 

Furious, I held my hand out for my husband to hand me the phone and went into full angry customer mode (my mom taught me well how to not take no for an answer). Even though I have confrontation, I can put on a pretty good show when I need to.

 

I tried to talk over the insurance representative, who was explaining to me in a nasty voice that there was no way this damage would be covered. Finally, I yelled into the phone, You need to stop talking RIGHT NOW and get a supervisor on the phone unless you can give me an answer that resolves this problem.

 

I will get a supervisor on the line, came a timid voice.

 

That’s right, I thought. Don’t mess with me, lady!

 

I know from experience, however, that there is not much arguing you can do with an insurance company because in the end, they hold all of the power. I could certainly make them squirm a little in the process, though.

 

I was standing in the parking lot of the Toyota dealership, where we had just pulled into pick up the car with horn temporarily disengaged until further repairs would be done. I stood shaking while listening to cheerful oldies music while I waited on hold for a supervisor to get on line.

 

Seven minutes later and the higher up assured me that yes, an appraiser would still be coming out to inspect the car. In order to determine whether the problem with the horn was due to normal wear and tear or the near miss, he would be conducting research on Prius horn, inspecting our car, and communicating with the Toyota mechanics.

 

Let me begin by saying that we are thankful you are both safe and the accident was avoided, came her honey sweet tone.

 

I was not impressed by her attempt to lull me into quiet acquiescence. I rolled my eyes and responded, my husband I find it incredibly disconcerting that the only way to be assured of insurance coverage would have been to have gotten into the accident rather than avoiding it.

 

She went on to explain that usually, damage to a vehicle caused by a near miss would be covered if the vehicle swerved and hit something else, like a guardrail.

 

My husband’s hand collided with the horn as a result of the near miss, I explained. That would be considered the same thing, I said.

 

From my research and from talking with the folks at Toyota, the solution for normal wear and tear would involve resetting the horn or replacing the spiral in the horn mechanism for $621. Seven hours of diagnostics by their mechanics and still not being completely certain of what happened does not seem like normal wear and tear to me.

 

In the end, our financial fate over the car lies in the hands of the insurance appraiser, who will be inspecting the car and offering his recommendation to the insurance company in a week. Fingers crossed, though I am certainly not going to hold my breath.

 

But where was I in the visa saga that had become our daily life? Ah yes, we were headed north to the land of salmon and cedar.

Two long days in the car, and we pulled in to my mother-in-law’s driveway in Edmonds, Washington, exhausted and cranky but safe and relieved to be on familiar ground.

 

We brought our things into the basement, including three traumatized cats, and settled in.

 

My mother-in-law had been out of town and had her mail held at her local post office. When she collected the mail that Tuesday, there was no FBI background check included in the mix.

 

That’s ok, we thought. If it was sent priority from Washington D.C. the Thursday or even Friday before, it would likely show up by Wednesday or Thursday of this week.

 

Would that it had been so!

 

Wednesday came and went with no sign of a priority mail enveloped from the FBI. My husband got the phone and called the staff person he had been working with at Gosar’s office, who assured us that it would likely arrive by Thursday.

 

When no package arrived Thursday, we started to get really nervous. My husband called Gosar’s office, only to find that the staff person he had been working with had called in sick. Luckily, her colleague offered to step in and try to figure out what happened.

 

Now, I should explain that our frustration during this entire visa process has been caused in great part by unreal expectations. If you are ever thinking about moving forward with any plan that involves red tape, be prepared for it to take far longer than what you might think is a reasonable timeframe.

 

We naively assumed that everything visa would happen on a much faster timeline than it did. We figured if we sent in all of the required documentation everything required that it would be processed right away and sent back to us in a reasonable amount of time. This was unrealistic on our part because clearly bureaucracy does not work this way, if it works at all. I wouldn’t use the term work to describe our government. I hesitate to use the phrase slow and steady, either. I will say that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and we had to do a lot of squeaking to finally get a visa in hand.

 

If you recall, we had been told that the FBI would be processing our applications the previous Thursday and mailing them out priority that day to the address in Washington state that my husband had provided. When Gosar’s staff person called my husband back, she told him that the FBI does not ship anything priority, that they had mailed the package regular mail, and they had shipped it out on Monday instead of the previous Thursday.

 

Now, what did I just say about false expectations? Even so, we were pretty floored by this news. In addition, Gosar’s office had told my husband to make sure to have our mail forwarded, just in case the FBI was to ship our package to our Arizona address instead of Washington. Turns out that there is a big stamp on each envelope, which we later found out that they were shipped separately, that reads DO NOT FORWARD.

 

Awesome!

 

Gosar’s staff person recommended that my husband contact the FBI to have a new package shipped to our new address in Washington (you know, the one he had already asked them to use). R contacted the FBI, who told him that he needed to fax specific signed documentation in order to accomplish this task. He tried faxing from his mother’s printer without success. Email back and forth the FBI, and he drove over to a UPS store to try again. This time it worked, but we had little hope that the duplicate processed background checks would make it to Washington in time to get them to the consulate in LA and get my husband’s visa in time for his flight.

 

What else could we do but move forward and hope for the best. The alternative was the sit down and weep from frustration, and we had worked too hard to give up.

 

While my husband was faxing information to the FBI, I got on the phone with the Prescott post office to see if they could track down our mail carrier and find the envelope from the FBI.

 

I will see what I can do, and I will call you back, the post office employee told me. I never received a call back.

 

My husband cancelled the forwarding service for our mail, and I found a friend to drive to our house and check our mail the next day, Friday. We were now at a week and a day countdown to my husband’s flight.

 

I received a text message from my friend that read, Affirmative!

 

 

Really???? I texted back. FBI????

 

My husband and I squealed with joy!

 

Then came the response: Yes, one big manila enveloped addressed to you.

 

What? Me? Could they have sent both of our processed applications in one envelope addressed to only one of our names?

Can you open it to see if it is mine and Rich’s stuff inside? I texted back.

 

My friend was loath to open it.

 

Ok, but it might be booby-trapped. And has all kinds of warnings not to open it if you are not the person it’s addressed to.

 

And then….

 

Um, it’s just for you, followed by a photograph of the offending document.

 

This was how we found out that the FBI had mailed each of our processed background checks in individual envelopes. Of course mine would arrive before R’s because it was his that we so desperately needed first. Isn’t that Murphy’s law?

 

We hoped that my husband’s simply had not yet arrived because it if had arrived the day before it might have been returned to sender. I called the post office a second time to see if they had found anything on their search the day before.

 

Who did you talk to yesterday, the mail clerk asked me over the phone.

 

I don’t know. A man?

 

It was probably Randy, she said. He is on the phone right now. I will write him a note and walk it over and hand it to him the second he gets off the phone, she said. I will personally make sure he calls you back.

 

A half an hour went by with no return call.

 

I called back and got another person on the phone. I explained the situation again (by this time, I had gotten pretty good at reducing it to a few short sentences).

 

The woman assured me she would get to the bottom of it and call me back. I sighed as I hung up the phone, fully expecting to never hear from her again.

 

A few minutes later, the phone rang. The woman at the post office told me that there had been a substitute covering our mail run mail carrier but that they had not seen anything official looking from FBI the day before. I was skeptical that they would have noticed one manila envelope in the hundreds they delivered that day, but I hoped she was right.

 

That meant that R’s envelope would hopefully arrive the next day, Saturday.

 

My friend was not available to check our mail the following day, but my husband was able to find a friend to check our mail and then swing by my friend’s house to get my FBI envelope so that they could both be mailed together to the consulate in LA.

 

We were on the edge of our seats as we waited to hear if R’s envelope had arrived.

 

Finally, we received the confirmation text. It was there, and our friend had it! All she had to do was overnight the envelopes, and they would arrive at the consulate by Monday.

 

Isn’t Monday a holiday? I asked, terror rising as I realized it was Labor Day, which meant that no mail would be delivered. The consulate might not even be open. Our friend found out that she could pay an extra fee to have the package delivered on a holiday, so we went for it. What’s another $15 when you have spent over a thousand?

 

My husband had our friends take photographs of the official letters from the FBI, which he emailed to the staff person at the consulate who had been overseeing our visa application process. He also informed the staff person that he had included a prepaid express envelope with the processed background checks and asked that they use this envelope to return his visa and passport instead of the prepaid priority envelope he had included in the original application package.

 

Then, we waited.

 

Labor Day came and went with not delivery confirmation text or email.

 

Tuesday morning, my husband received confirmation that the background checks had been delivered to the consulate at 11:03am. Hallelujah, we thought.

 

A couple of hours later, he got an email from the consulate staff person, telling him that she had processed his visa and was dropping it off at the mail center in the priority envelope from the original application. Apparently, she was leaving the office and did not have 5-10 extra minutes to procure the express envelope that would ensure the visa arrived overnight instead of the several days it could take for priority to travel between California and Washington.

 

Even with news that the visa was being mailed priority, my husband was thrilled and felt like celebrating. I was less than thrilled, feeling saddened by his impending departure. I would like to be able to write that I have been grounded, positive, and have offered unending support and encouragement to my husband throughout this entire process, but that would be pretty far from the truth. We have a very strong bond, and this process has worn both of us to the quick. There have been a lot of tears, laughter, and expletives launched back and forth. Suffice it to say that if your marriage is already on the rocks, I do not recommend adding an international move to the mix.

 

We spent the rest of the day cranky and at odds with one another, until we finally succumbed to a celebratory pizza dinner with mom. We toasted with the special bottle of whiskey that we had been saving to celebrate the completion of the visa process. True, we did not yet have visa in hand, but we wanted to share with everyone who had helped make this dream a reality. We figured that drinking and toasting our intention to have the visa arrive in time was almost as good as actually having the visa. Plus, we were ready to hit the hard stuff by this point.

 

The next morning, we drove down to Portland to visit my husband’s brother and his daughter, who was a student at Pacific University in Forest Grove. My husband had been checking the tracking number the staff person at the consulate had sent, and it still showed the package sitting in their mailroom.

 

Maybe, they need to review every document before they can ship it? He suggested. We were not amused, and our hope that the visa would arrive before his Saturday morning flight was fast diminishing.

 

I crafted and sent an email to the staff person while my husband was driving and received an Out of Office reply with another email to contact in case of an emergency.

 

Oh my god, I said to my husband. Imagine if she were out of the office yesterday? It was too terrifying to imagine. Instead of giving into my unwarranted fears, I clicked reply and added the additional email in the CC line, requesting they get the express envelope and use that to ship the package. I had enough to worry about already without adding what if’s to the mix.

 

One thing I have learned through this process is that it can be easy to get so swept up in the emotional response that you fly off the emotional edge. My husband and I have had to learn to allow ourselves an initial emotionally laden response, followed by meditation and acceptance that we have done all we can do the move the process forward.

 

Trust me, we literally did everything possible to get my husband’s visa and passport in time to fly to Brussels save flying to LA and going in person to the consulate to get the visa from their mail room.

 

We never did receive a response to our email requesting the switch to an express envelope, not that we were really expecting one. In this never-ending saga, we have found that most people out there do not seem to see the person behind the bureaucracy. It can be pretty disheartening at times, though we have tried to put on a good face. To the woman at the consulate, we were just another couple trying to get a visa, and she wanted to take the day off. Why take extra time for which she wouldn’t be compensated for to help us out by getting an express envelope?

 

It has been the select few individuals who have gone above and beyond to help us out that have restored our faith in humankind. For them (and you know who you are), we are forever grateful! Who knew that it would take a village to get a visa? We are also thankful for all of you out there (and you know who you are, too) who have been following our story and sending words of love and support and good thoughts and energy our way.

 

At 8pm Wednesday night, my husband received a text with tracking confirmation, stating that his visa and passport had left the consulate and been sent to a sorting facility in LA. At just after midnight, he received confirmation that it had arrived at the sorting facility and been sorted.

 

Praise the lord! The visa was on the move. I started looking up maps for how long it generally would take priority mail to travel from LA to Seattle. The map I found showed 2 days for southern California to western Washington. It might actually get to us in time!

 

We headed north back to Edmonds later that afternoon.

 

Friday morning, a text came in, saying the visa had made it to Federal Way in Washington, a community between Tacoma and Seattle. Then another, saying it had left Federal Way. Our hope lifted every so slightly.

 

We were now down to the 24-hour countdown to my husband’s flight, scheduled for 9:40am the next day. When we got word that the visa had been taken to the mailroom at the consulate on Tuesday, I had imagined it would arrive by Thursday. It was looking like we would be cutting it even closer by having it arrive Friday afternoon, if it arrived.

 

My husband started contacting people at the post office to see if it might be possible to intercept the package rather than waiting for delivery. We were not sure it would even be on the mail truck for delivery to Edmonds that day. He started with the local Edmonds post office person, who first told him there was no way for him to get the package because there had to be an attempt at delivery before he could pick it up. When my husband explained the situation, he eased up every so slightly (this guy was clearly a by the book to the t person) and suggested my husband contact the main office for the area to see what he might be able to find out.

 

When he called this office, he was told that even though the tracking information showed the package had left Federal way, it was still actually there, either waiting to be sorted or more likely, sitting in a locked a truck, waiting to be driven further north.

 

Swell!

 

What if we just drove down to Federal Way to get it? I suggested.

 

So my husband got on the phone to the postal facility in Federal Way and left a message to receive a call back. The wait time was 23 minutes.

 

He finally received a return call and was told that the facility did not have any customer service answering phones but that he could try calling them at the number the representative provided.

 

He called 12 times, letting the phone ring for an extended period each time, and gave up.

 

Plan B was to hope that the visa would be delivered to the main post office for our area and that the mail sorters (who arrived between 3 and 6:30am) would have sorted the mail by the time the post office manager arrived to work at 7am Saturday morning. We could then call and hope he picked up the phone so that we could try to pick up the visa on our way to the airport.

 

I had thought that waiting for the visa to be delivered Friday afternoon was calling it close, but this experience was bringing the phrase down to the wire to an entirely new level!

 

We decided to upgrade Plan B to Plan B Plus by leaving a note in my mother-in-law’s mailbox to see if her mail carrier might have any insight into how to improve our odds at getting the visa first thing in the morning.

 

I mentioned earlier in this post that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and I continue to stand by this claim. When we were trying to get the FBI background check envelope for my husband at the post office in Prescott, I had called so many times that they held it for our friend to pick up the moment they saw it and even called us and left a voicemail to let us know. We still had to send a letter with a copy of my husband’s driver’s license and our friend’s name written out in order for them to pick up our mail, but what’s another bit of red tap when we have already used a Costco supply and then some?

 

My mother-in-law’s mail carrier already had the tracking information for the visa and was planning on going into work on his day off to try to help find it.

 

My mother-in-law assured him that he did not have to go to such lengths, but he told her he was up early anyway and it was not trouble at all. He left house with a batch of freshly baked cookies and profuse thanks.

 

There was nothing more we could do but wait. My husband finished packing and weighing his bags to make sure they did not exceed the allotted 50 lbs. (I forgot to mention that the rolling duffle bags we had ordered months earlier wound up being too big to check with excess baggage fees, so we had gone searching through my mother-in-law’s storage in the basement to see if we could find smaller bags. No stress there!).

 

I was so exhausted Friday night that I fell asleep before 9pm and slept like the dead until 6:10am the next morning. I hadn’t even woken up when my husband got up at 5:45am to take a shower.

 

I dutifully got out of bed in the dark, pulled on a pair of sweatpants, a tank top, and a sweatshirt, and went upstairs to make coffee and a couple of cheese sandwiches for him to take on the plane.

After starting the coffee, I walked back downstairs to put on a good luck necklace and the magic earrings that a friend had gifted to me before we left Arizona. I was not leaving anything up to chance!

 

Originally, we had hoped to leave for the airport by 6:30am. The I-5 corridor can be unpredictable with traffic, and it would only take one accident to ruin our chances of getting there on time for my husband to make his flight.

 

The night before, we had determined that the latest we could leave for the airport in order for my husband to check his bags at the required hour before departure was 7:30am. If there was not traffic and not too much of a line through security, he could just make it.

 

My mother-in-law printed out several maps and contact information for the post office. It was 6:45am, and we were loading my husband’s luggage into the car when he noticed a missed call and voicemail from the mail carrier.

 

He has the package! My husband called out.

 

We screamed and jumped for joy, dove into the car, and sat back while my mother-in-law stepped on the gas to get to the post office.

 

Down. To. The. Wire.

 

We followed the directions but could not find the post office. My husband called the mail carrier, who told us that it was kitty corner from where we were and behind a bunch of trees. It was definitely well hidden. Never a dull moment in this mad dash for the airport!

 

We pulled up to the front entrance of the post office, a tall man met us at the car door, and extended a hand to my husband, who had jumped out of the car and run up to him.

 

Let me give you a hug! My husband insisted.

 

As we pulled away from the post office, I said that I should have taken a photo for my book, but there was no way we were turning around now.

 

Who knew something so small could cause so much trouble?

 

We headed for I-5, and my husband opened the envelope, revealing a passport with his photo and beautiful visa placed on one of the inside pages. In the priority envelope were all of the original documents he had submitted with his application and a small note with compliments from the kingdom of Belgium written on it.

 

Belgium has a king? I asked.

 

It used to, my husband responded, and he went on to tell us some of the history of Belgium while his mother drove as quickly as was legally possible toward Sea-Tac airport.

 

Traffic was clear, and it was just after our exit for the airport that the pile up was beginning. Another close call! We needed every possible second to get him to the airport on time.

 

30 minutes after the visa package hand-off, and we were pulling into the departures drop-off area of the airport. I hadn’t even had time to write my husband a note to hide in his carry-on luggage, a first for me in the entire time we had been together.

 

I helped him carry his bags inside. He gave me a hug, followed by a kiss, and he was off to check-in.

 

Back in the car, my mother-in-law and I headed north, exclaiming disbelief every few seconds that we had made it.

 

Texts came in every few minutes from my husband as he made his way through checking his bags, security, and heading for the gate.

 

He made it! I exclaimed as I read the final text. He actually made it!

 

Now, he is on the plane and on his way to the next part of the story in Brussels, where he will look for an apartment for us to live in, while I prepare to meet with an insurance appraiser to get the horn fixed on our car and wait for my visa to come through so we can be reunited, hopefully soon, in Belgium.

 

Thanks, as always, for reading. Stay tuned for more in the Adventures in International Living by Marieke and R.

 

I am your host, Marieke.

 

Have a beautiful day, and try to enjoy every moment of it!

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4 Comments

Belgium or Bust

This past spring, my husband and I watched the first two seasons of the book turned film series Outlander. We had a running joke about the characters, most of who seemed to move between love, hate, and an intense enmity in quick succession.

Whenever we saw a scene with laughing that turns into sword fighting in the blink of an eye, we turned to each and say, I love you. I hate you. I will kill you!

The decision to turn our lives upside down to move to Europe for the next four years has inspired our own version of emotional turmoil, reminiscent of the Outlander series. There has been a lot of laughter, tears, and intermittent fits of screaming and expletives, and emotions seem to shift from zero to a hundred pretty quickly.

Waaaaaait a second. Hold up, you might be thinking right about now. Belgium? Where did this come from?

I realize that I have known for some time that the landscape has become Belgium, but in the tumultuous transition I have been experiencing these past few months, I have neglected to communicate the details to you.

So, please allow me to take a step back here and provide some context.

My husband and I got married in November 2015, not quite a year ago. Instead of traditional gifts, we asked for monetary contributions to help fund a honeymoon to France. We wanted to spend a few weeks taking a tour around the country by way of reconnaissance in case my husband’s sabbatical proposal to spend a year there would come through.

We are Francophiles. Independent of each other, we have been studying French and traveling to France for decades. Our mutual love of the French language was discovered within the first few minutes of our first meeting (or so a friend who was sitting near us has told us). The entire encounter is a bit of a blur to me now; something about love at first sight and time standing still, fireworks, and the like.

My husband (let’s call him R) has been sequestered in Prescott, Arizona for nearly 20 years. Now that his daughter is in college and his son has graduated and is pursuing a master’s degree, he is free to revisit the dream of his younger self to become an expat and live abroad.

Belgium was not the original destination my husband started musing over several months ago. It began with France. Well, to be honest, it began about ten years ago with the very tentative idea to pursue his own research and earn a PhD.

When I have an idea to pursue something, I typically dive right in. I am rather capricious that way. My husband is an Aquarius and tends to wallow in possible pursuits. He has also raised two children as a single parent, which can hinder a person’s ability to prioritize their individual desires. Kids come first.

I am in awe of anyone who follows the doctoral path while simultaneously trying to raise children and be part of a family. I may have worked full-time while working toward my own PhD, but the only other beings I was beholden to were my cats. They were pretty understanding of my need to spend hours at a computer, so long as they could take up residence on my lap.

Knowing the reality of what it means to pursue a PhD, part of me has been cringing ever since my husband made the decision to dive in full tilt into looking for the right PhD program. My husband, the Aquarian wallower, does nothing lightly. He began researching program, first in France and then around the world. He began researching the area of study he hoped to pursue.

R is a research librarian, and before long there were books piles on every available surface of our home. As he began to make connections with faculty in France, his research became more focused. Eventually, he found a global network of academics in the field of media ecology and honed in on a professor at a university in Brussels.

And so Brussels became yet another possibility in the growing number of places we might go. Metz, Nancy, Paris, Lille, Brussels. There was a program in Eugene, Oregon, but we had missed the scholarship deadline, and another in Toronto.

In this political climate, Canada was sounding pretty good, but I already had the taste of fresh croissant in my mind. I am not going to Canada, I snipped.

Having spent my life as what I now refer to as the path of the modern wandering Jew, I am fairly accustomed to putting down shallow roots everywhere I go because I know I will likely be coaxing those roots out of their cozy abode after only a short stay.

Wandering is one thing. I am used to it. With each change to the season, I can feel a deep desire to travel beginning to bubble up to the surface.

Limbo is another thing altogether. I have experienced limbo a lot in my life, and I don’t do well with it. I am not a patient person by nature, and the waiting game is not my cup of tea. So, I tried not to get too wrapped up in each possible new place we might go.

I want to be able to say that I did an ok job of staying sane and supportive during all of the limbo, but I believe in being honest. It has not been the best of times. It hasn’t been the worst, either, but I have not been the most grounded and mellow person these past several months.

I wonder if it makes a difference if I am the one to make the choice to move into a state of limbo rather than being on another person’s limbo ride, where I have less control over the journey and destination?

The jury is still out, but I will keep you posted.

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4 Comments

Keep your Chi off of me

Lately, I have felt like I am being constantly bombarded by negative energy from the people around me. I think what is likely is that the bombardment is a natural part of life. When my stress level is high, I simply notice it more readily and also tend to take it far more personally.

 

Life is limbo. There is uncertainty and instability all the time because there is the possibility for so many things to happen at any time. We cannot anticipate or plan for them all.

 

I have grown accustomed to this idea, but there is another limbo that has been adding to my stress. It is the limbo I create, or at least that I am party to. My husband has been researching how to earn a PhD in Europe for the past several months, so I have been thrust into an intentional space of unknowing. Being in this space is challenging for me. I realize that I want to know what is going to happen right away. Having to be patient and wait is not my strong suit.

 

With the building stress of the unknown, I find that it does not take very much to set me off—inconsiderate driving (at least, what I consider inconsiderate), a terse email, a stern look from a stranger or a friend, no response from people I care about in a social media forum like Facebook. All of this energy keeps coming at me, and I can feel myself getting beaten up.

 

How to respond to negative energy is something I have been thinking about for a long time. I have imagined that I am engaging in a kind of energy Aikido. Should a person send something negative my way, my job would be to stop that energy in its tracks and let it fall to the ground. In this way, I would not be deflecting the energy back toward the person, which never improves a situation. I would also be ensuring that the energy did not carry on and hit someone else. Finally, I would not be taking the energy on myself.

 

The latter thought process is where my thinking has been flawed.

 

A few weeks ago, I began taking Tai Chi. I am a complete beginner, but I listen closely to the tenets of this martial art that my teacher conveys to me.

 

This evening, he was teaching me a posture that would allow me to grab hold of the wrist and forearm of a person who might be sending a punch my way. The following move would be to deflect the punch by pulling them first towards me and then behind me. In following through with these movements, I would deflect the punch from hitting me.

 

My teacher explained, It only takes 4 ounces to move a thousand pounds. Think of it as they are already moving in that direction, and you are just helping them continue on their way.
We took a break, and I quickly wrote down as much of what he had said me as I could remember.

 

And suddenly, I experienced a moment of completely clarity.

 

I stood up and walked over to where my teacher was standing looking out the window.

 

Can I ask you a question?

 

Of course.

 

So, when you were talking about deflecting a person’s attack, can that be compared to how to respond to a person’s energy?

 

He responded affirmatively.

 

The highest skill in tai chi is environmental awareness. If you sense someone with ill will in the distance, you try to go around them. But if you can’t, you should also be aware of what is going on behind you. And if there is no one behind you, you know you can deflect the energy in that direction.

 

(Clouds separate to reveal sunlight streaming through from the blue sky above)

 

I have always thought that if a person directed mean energy toward me, I should try to stop it from possibly hitting someone else.
That makes sense, but it takes a lot more energy to stop a moving force than it does to deflect it, he told me.
It was this idea that sparked the ah ha moment for me. it was like moving from an IBM to a Mac. Suddenly, I realized that I had been making my life much harder than it needed to be, and I felt lighter. Clarity was right there looking directly at me.
All of these years, I have been thinking that I need to put my hands out in front of me and physically stop the negative energy coming from the people around me. Yet I seem to find myself failing at this task.

 

Am I a bad person? I would wonder. Why do I let people get to me? Why do I engage? Why am I not able to practice my energy Aikido?

 

The reason is that I have been setting myself up to fail.

 

The reason I have been failing is that my thinking has been flawed.

 

I am not an energy superhero. In some fairly benign energy instances, I may be able to stop the energy in its tracks and let it fall to the ground. However, in most instances I am not strong enough to stop it, and so it simply comes crashing right into me. When this happens, if I am not under a high amount of stress, I can sometimes let it pass through me (though not without some damage). Most often, I am inclined to push that negative energy right back at the person because I am feeling attacked.

 

If I take the practice of Tai Chi to my energy theory, I realize that I don’t need to try to stop the weird, often nasty energy of the people I meet, in some capacity, each and every day. I don’t know where their negativity or aggression started, but likely it originated long before they met me. What I can do is to attempt to gracefully redirect the continuing path of their ire and let it continue on its way without taking it on myself. The origin of their ire is not my fight. I can simply help a little with the path of its trajectory.

 

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Change has its own timeline

I studied yoga in a 200-hour teacher train from March through September 2015. Along with the nine other women in my kula (community), I was asked to come up with my goals and intentions for the course. My main desire was to stop taking medication for my anxiety. When I started taking them, I had always thought that it would be a temporary solution. Medication would help create enough of a grounding to give me a nudge to find more natural methods to replace a temporary chemical solution.

 

However, the couple of times I attempted to go off the chemicals cold turkey had not gone particularly well. Each time, I had difficulty breathing, pain in my chest, and panic that came rushing in like a full force flood.

 

I knew from experience that breath work, meditation, and yoga could help me to feel more calm and grounded, so it seemed reasonable to set my aforementioned goal at the start of my teacher training. However, September arrived and I still had not weaned myself from my chemical balancing act. I felt like a failure, and I was frustrated.

 

I don’t like being dependent on medication, I told my husband. What if there is a nuclear holocaust and I can’t get my prescription filled? What then?

 

Of course, I imagine that if a nuclear holocaust were to occur, I would be so focused on survival that I might not have time to be anxiety-riddled, but still. I hated having to see a doctor to get my prescription filled every year. I had even had one doctor refuse to take me as a new patient because of my medication. I felt like there was something wrong with me that I could not find a way to create balance on my own.

 

What if you try going off of your medication gradually? my husband suggested.

 

I decided to follow his suggestion and began cutting my pills in half. I tried the each reduction for a few weeks to a month before cutting the half of a pill in half once more.

 

This gradual process met with far more approval from my body’s internal compass, and I realized a couple of weeks ago that the tiny morsels of pills had grown too small to cut in half without turning into powder.

 

And so here I sit, western medicine no longer courses through my veins. I am able to breath, I feel grounded and calm (except while driving…Prescott drivers make me crazy, but one step at a time, right?). I still feel some panic arise, mainly as I am getting under the covers for sleep, but this may be residual familiarity from a lifetime of worrying about having trouble falling asleep. It takes practice to create new behavior patterns around the ones that have become engrained over time.

 

I hadn’t really thought too much about this new place of spaciousness until I mentioned it to a few of my yogi friends while we were out practicing in a local downtown park.

 

They reflected back to me love, amazement, and support, and I realized that it really was a big deal. Sometimes, I find, it is easy to focus on the things that are not happening for me rather than to recognize the remarkable feats I accomplish each day, however small. It can take having a behavior reflected back to me from a friend or loved one. It can also take my own intention of sifting through memories to see where I was at this time in my life a year ago, two years ago, and beyond.

 

As they like to say, You have come a long way, baby!

 

And I have!

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