The perpetual foreigner
Since I was about 15, I haven’t lived in any one place with enduring permanence. The pattern has been something like 8 years out, 4 years in, 1 year out, 1 year in, 7 years out, 1 year in – all interspersed with short breaks ‘in’ of course. But essentially, a significant chunk of my life has taken shape in an environment outside of what I was raised within. And of course, the more time you spend ‘out’ the more inelegant you become ‘in’. It is different to an immigration, where you pretty much draw a line between the old country and the new one but rather a series of ‘starts-stops’ that doesn’t fully permit you to marry a future with a location. Initially, I always embraced the new, eventually, I longed for the old and lately I have been wondering if being outside of my comfort zone, eventually became my comfort zone. As with any life choice, there are upsides and downsides and thus far, this is my list.
Nelly Furtado was right on the money when she waxed lyrical about the liberating life of a bird. In recent years I have finally acknowledged that what has been a reiterating theme in my life trajectory is one of freedom. Desiring it, embracing it, and unable to live without it. I think life on the move was both a conscious and subconscious choice to resist a life governed by by societal and cultural templates. Landing in an airport, suitcase full of the basics to an unknown chapter, hunting for a new habitat to snuggle into… it is tiresome but comes to me quite naturally. It is no surprise that I chose a life partner who is similarly inclined, perhaps to an even greater degree, having lived outside his motherland for the majority of his life. That’s not to say that I am not equally frustrated by our inability to commit to one permanent spot on earth.. (explained further under Rootless below) but at this stage in our lives (and let’s just say we are not at the beginning stage) these boots are still walking.
Understanding the world we live in today, keeps my motors going. Trying to understand how each society governs itself, what their leaders embody, how they feel about their leaders, what the common man loves, how families connect with each other, how do they express love, how they manifest their belief system, what is worth their sacrifice, how they design their buildings, what are they trying to express in their art, what is the root of their tribal affiliations, what do their intellects have to say about their history… the questions never end. Make no mistake – I am no raving intellectual who lives and breathes for world discovery – I am actually quite comfortable to live the majority of my days in superficial oblivion – but a general interest in the wide variety of how people experience the concept of existence is definitely part of my curiosities and this has been deeply fulfilled by being on the move.
I am mainly inspired by any expression of courage and generosity. And it has been my good fortune to keep stumbling into different manifestations of this. People who are living in dire conditions, offering help to others with less. A friend from a country seized in armed conflict returning to the eye of the storm, crossing tense borders and checkpoints, so she could be with a family member of ill health. Parental dedication to a disabled child, or to one who has transgressed. The love of an adolescent refugee for his parents. The list of characters who have crossed my path, who has lived enormous lives and survived the insurmountable continues. I cling on to it as an education of inner strength, an exercise of gratitude and a way to continue healing and reaching for the higher self.
In every family, there are complex histories full of tear jerking love and sacrifice, disappointments and disagreements. But they pretty much define a large part of what love means to me. I have never been in more pain in my life than the time when one of the tribe is in pain, and I have never been as fully content as when we are all together enjoying a holiday by the beach. This is the thermometer of which all of life’s full range of emotions are experienced. If you are not capable of giving your best self to your family, then there will always be this aspect of you which feels incomplete. With many years of separation, the gulf exists in various forms but the filial aspirations remains stronger than ever. Parental sacrifice is the most potent form of love I have been blessed to receive and as we reach another phase in our lives, all you want is to make sure that every moment counts with them. Not having them within a half hour drive of my days has been a deeply regrettable aspect of life of on the move.
The issue at hand is not about an identity crisis as I strongly identify with my heritage in many immutable ways but it’s more about deciding where to plant the roots. Everything continues to be ephemeral, everything depends on something else to manifest. We keep so many things on standby and under the KIV folder. The inability to embrace say even just one decade of living in one address, can sometimes really get under my skin and take me to dark places. But on lighter days, the sky opens up and I philosophically accept that ultimately – nothing in life is permanent. Why the hysteria for a place to call home when home is really about people and not places. And then back to the familiar vexations of being in limbo. Followed by another round of zen reflections. Rinse and repeat. But ultimately, I know that internal tranquil triumphs all else. I encounter various forms of lifestyle from family and close friends. Those who have lived all their lives in one neighbourhood and will continue to perpetuate it into the next generation, and those who have lived all of their lives on the move from childhood till middle age, with their families in tow. Both groups seem no more happy or unhappy with their lives than the other. The measure of happiness is usually in relation to the partnerships they formed, the connection they feel with their loved ones. It’s not about what you fill up in the Address form.
This is slightly related to the issue of Rootlessness above. One of my main aesthetic loves is wainscotting. I am seduced by walls and doors with frames, as above. And it is so darn hard to have this done to a rented home. If we ever settle down somewhere and plant our roots there, the first thing I will do is have a wainscotting revolution. Then my life will finally be complete….
It is an inevitable truth that wins and losses are part and parcel of all life experiences. Quite often, we find ourselves living lives that are close to our aspirations on some level, interspersed with pockets of unmet desires. To celebrate the wins, make peace with the losses and strive for closing the gaps is a precarious balance often in a state of perpetual adjustment. But one fact remains – to even be in a healthy position of reflection and inner counsel, is a blessing that we can’t overestimate. Here’s to health, and the ability to remain grateful, courageous and generous no matter what our orientation of life brings.