I’m just back to Colombia after spending two months in the USA, so I’m experiencing both major and minor cultural tremors on a personal level. Add an extended rainy season in the Colombian highlands (leaking roof and windows!) to the usual adaptation one experiences when culture hopping and you get the picture.
Visiting and spending quality time with my two unique Sisters in the USA is always a trip—in the literal sense. What we share genetically more than anything else are our eccentricities.
While we all have our own idiosyncratic personalities, and despite the challenges apparent in placing three older-adult siblings into the same living space for two months, this scenario always provides me (and I hope them as well) with a great opportunity for personal growth. We’re all three prone to saying “It isn’t easy being us” far too often. 🙂
But, most of all, these extended visits give a rootless expat like me a feeling of belonging and being loved, and that’s the best gift my Sisters could ever give me.
Of course, I had great parents too–who I’ve mentioned in past posts–but the parent/child relationship plays out on a different frequency, with all the hopes and dreams of a caring parent being funneled through and onto the child which can be stressful for everyone involved.
One thing I’ve learned about family from living abroad in collectivist cultures is that no one will ever love you as much or stand beside you and support you as long as a devoted sister or brother, or at least one that sees you as a kindred spirit and not a rival. And, of course, special friends can fill this space as well, and indeed have at different points in my life.
Recognizing (and accepting) how fractured and dysfunctional many American families are these days, I count my lucky stars to have been born into such a kind, generous and supportive one. I treasure my Sisters. Actually, they should be on the National Register of Treasures, or at least the National Register of Unique and Interesting Places. They’d definitely be on the @topten list!
Getting more to the point of this post–the wackiness of all three of us siblings gave me the perfect analogy for my life.
The revelation…well, sort of
It was about 9:00 PM and my Sisters were in the kitchen. I walked away for a few minutes, and when I came back, no one was there. Okay, not really surprising since they’re both little Energizer Bunnies–the type with long-life lithium batteries—constantly darting here and there. Did I mention that they’re older than me?
I discovered they were outside putting all the potted plants into the garage for protection due to the next day’s forecast for heavy rain storms. Never mind that we just put the pots ‘out’ a few hours earlier. The weather had been very unsettled for 2 weeks so the plants had been on an almost daily schedule of inside/outside. One of my Sisters made the comment that the plants were droopy, the colors were fading and that they looked unhealthy in general.
I laughed and said, “No wonder. These plants can’t grow when they’re constantly being shuffled around. They haven’t had time to adapt to a given environment long enough to put down any roots.” [I said this in jest since the plants were in pots and couldn’t physically ‘put down’ roots even if they were left in one spot under perfect conditions.]
But, here’s the point: once the roots of a plant (or a person for that matter) have been given a chance to grow and anchor firmly, that plant can begin to look and ‘be’ healthy, grow and blossom into such an amazing thing of majestic beauty. It’s nature’s way.
We often think that we, as human beings, don’t have to follow the rules of nature. We seem to think we can live our very unnatural lives in some sort of vortex and that the rules of nature don’t apply, no, not to us–the supreme human being.
Once I’d responded to my Sister’s comment, I realized how much those poor plants resembled me in recent years. While I was dragging my tired body from country to country looking for the ‘right’ job and the place to live with the ‘right’ mix, I was also constantly telling myself this place or that place just didn’t ‘feel’ right. At the same time, I was persistently beating myself up for not being able to somehow press the stop button. I kept thinking there MUST be something seriously lacking in my makeup, right?
Compared to most of my friends and all of my family, my life seemed almost freakish—the constant moving and setting up house, start over and repeat. I lost count long ago of the number of house moves I’ve made in my life, all as an adult and all by choice. When you’re the one making all the decisions, there’s no one else to blame when things don’t seem to go according to any plan.
Just upon being released from a Bangkok hospital where I’d been kept for multiple nights on two different visits within a 10-day period and finally diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2005, I remember a close friend calling me and being quite frank. She said, “Henry, what do you mean you’re staying on in the country that almost killed you?” I still can hear the tone in her voice. She really was incredulous.
At the time, I can’t say I disagreed with my friend’s assessment of my situation. I was aware I’d had a sensitive gut since high school when I’d been hospitalized twice as well with an unknown digestive malady. Being bullied as a freshman in a big, new high school obviously had brought on more stress than my body could handle.
Lying in that hospital bed in Bangkok brought back those memories and I understood that now I had allowed stress (from my teaching job at an international school) to make me sick…again. At that point, I felt certain I’d have to give up my live-abroad lifestyle and move back to the more familiar USA, but that wasn’t to be my destiny.
Honestly, I did make peace with my vagabond lifestyle somewhere around 2008. That doesn’t mean I fully accepted that it was okay for my mind to continue dragging my body across international borders in some sort of ‘Henry Was Here’ melodrama. But, I did accept, at least on a conscious level, that this was the life I was meant to live.
Seeking the Middle Way
Just because you find yourself in a groove on THE PATH, doesn’t mean that groove will always follow the ‘middle way’. That’s the most challenging part of life for me–finding that middle way. Being fully aware and engaged with the world without internalizing (think gut-wrenching) too much negativity is one of my greatest challenges, and certainly a life lesson the universe intends for me to learn.
Look, I know this post may sound like it’s written by yet another self-indulgent Westerner, given the world’s very real problems at the moment. And, I admit reading my fair share of self-help books, experimenting with alternative therapies (why not?) and regularly attending Buddhist meditation during the 1990s when I lived in a very New Agey Seattle.
But for me, all those experiences–along with the more recent 15 years I’ve wandered across planet Earth–are just part of the preparation for what’s yet to come in life. Yeah, this is the place where I say “I’m still waiting for the Mother Ship to come pick me up,” but I’m not going to reveal that yet. 😉
Let’s just say I’m stubborn and don’t learn the toughest of life’s lessons easily. Like most just average students, I need some degree of repetition before I ‘get it’, and I have the scars to prove it.
Finding and walking along the middle way allows us to focus on what’s really important in life—family, friends, helping others, staying in tune with nature and being open to the new experiences just around every corner.
So, here I am, still on the move. Now back in Colombia. “Maybe this time”—the Liza Minelli refrain from “Cabaret” repeats in my head…