life of m

Sustaining the Self and Beyond


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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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Moving Day

For many years, I have wished I could claim familial ties with the fairy realm. The term “moving day” instantly brings to mind images of fairies around the world marching in procession as they move to a new location, which they will inhabit for the next year before moving once again. Though the official moving day for the fée happens at the end of October, I seem to have been following my own fée journey around the globe.

For the past decade, I have been making figure eights around the world. I have spent time traveling and living on five continents. This wandering began even before I graduated from high school. I would spend summers at overnight camp or touring the southeast region of the United States with the American Civil Liberties Union, following in the footsteps of civil rights activists. My first year in college, I lived in two different dorms. I then transferred to another school for a semester, moved back the following semester, studied at another school in a language immersion program that summer, and hopped across the Atlantic puddle to live in West Africa for 6 months.

I often wonder where this penchant for travel derives its origin. Am I one of a long line of gypsies? Is it simply the modern application of the wandering Jew cliché?

David Orr has written about the loss of community and sense of place in the country and claimed that the average American will move at least 11 times in a lifetime. What does this mean for me having moved twice that many times in just over a decade? Has my soul been completely lost in this wild shuffle? Do I belong everywhere or nowhere?

I have struggled with this transient lifestyle to develop a sense of belonging and community in the places where I have lived. There have been periods of time when I have staunchly put my foot down and refused to leave. There is pain involved in uprooting oneself from home, wherever that home may be. In leaving my home in the upper Skagit Valley of Western Washington for a permanent job in Alaska, I shed many tears for sacred places I would no longer be able to visit daily or seasonally. I cried over cherished chickens I adopted out to dear friends.

Not two years later, I found myself making plans to move again. I spent time in Arizona during a furlough from my Alaska position. Before leaving, my life in chaos, I made a hasty decision to part with one of my four beloved cats. Four cats seemed unsustainable, and I bowed to recommendations from friends and family to find a home for at least one of my cats. So I did. I watched an overjoyed family walk out my front door with Izzy in their arms. I felt initial relief that I was sending Izzy to a place where he would get all of the love and attention I wasn’t able to provide with the limitations of my life. As the months have worn on, this relief has grown to regret. I miss my cat, who had been as close to a child as I have known and am likely to experience for some time to come. I know I am being selfish wanting to still have him and that he has long since forgotten who I am, but when my life turns to one where limbo, transience, and instability are the norm, I begin to cling to those tangible reminders of home—critter comforts, familiar furniture, photographs.

This past fall, I put down tentative roots in what has become one of many transient communities in my world—Prescott College in Prescott, Arizona. Toward the end of my brief tenure in Arizona, I was offered a position at Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts and prepared, planned, and conducted an incredibly complicated (and expensive) move from Gustavus, Alaska to Lowell via the Inside Passage; Seattle, Washington; Prescott, Arizona; and Sharon, Massachusetts.

I spent two months in an apartment on the edge of the ghetto in Lowell in the community known as “The Acre”. A colleague described my current landlord as “The Slum Lord of Lowell when I told her where I was living.

So I have paid—financially and in emotional, physical, and spiritual exhaustion. Tonight, with thunderstorms looming on the horizon, I prepare for yet another moving day. Here’s hoping the next place I call home will offer a modicum of normalcy and tranquility for however long I stay.

Were I to write a book on my travels in search of sustainability in the personal, professional, and community realms, I could begin each chapter with a photograph of a cat peeking out of a cardboard box.

This priority mail box has been a kitty favorite for over a year, and it has traveled from Alaska all the way to Massachusetts!

I also would not have succeeded in relocating on so many occasions without the support and assistance of incredible friends and family from the communities I have called home. Thanks to my upriver North Cascades friends, one of whom picked me up on a dark night driving on an ice and snow-laden Highway 20 this past January when the whole of Western Washington had closed down from extreme winter weather conditions. I barely made it with the U-haul I drove off the Alaska Marine Highway to a moving company in south Seattle. The runways were just being cleared and reopened so I could fly back to Arizona, pack my car, and continue the journey by automobile to the east coast. My parents have been unbelievably supportive during the crazy and complicated journey east, along with the most recent upcoming move from one locale to another in Lowell.

Along the way, I have been blessed with hugs and love, and I have adopted a traveling gnome I call Jerome, a gift from a dear friend in the upper Skagit.

I have also been able to reconnect with old friends of the human, as well as furry and feathered variety, and I have been reminded of how lucky I am to have communities around the country and the world that I have been and can continue to call home.

I may move around more than I care to recount, but I am never alone, I am always loved, and I get to make new friends along the way!