Friday, 26 January 2018

Returning Home After Many Years Abroad

"The process of repatriation, or moving back to your home country, is often just as hard (if not harder) than moving abroad." (Quote taken from link below.)

"Part of the reason reverse-culture shock happens is because people attempt to go back to a place that no longer exists as a person that no longer exists. You’ve changed since living abroad and what you consider home has probably changed as well." (Quote taken from link below.)

This is on my mind lately as we prepare to move back to Canada. I've lived almost all my adult life overseas, all of my milestone events... marriage, adoptions, work experience, all the trials and joys of adult life have taken place far away from where I come from. Aside from the amazing support of my husband, there have been many times I have coped with large changes and issues on my own without the "normal" support network many people have.

I spent many years coming to terms with Norway, learning the language and culture. I remember how it felt to come here at 24 years old and to adjust to life in a foreign country on top of having to adjust to married life which is a great change in itself. At the same time I enjoyed and wanted my new life, I grieved deeply for a life I had chosen to leave behind which is normal. I certainly experienced culture shock and took my time adjusting. There were many years I felt a deep, unrelenting loneliness at the core of my being but I feel now that this was a good thing. Eventually I learned to make peace with many things and to understand that I am not owed anything, my happiness depends not on the situational but on something deeper.

There was nothing, not my years at boarding school as a teenager, or my year as a nanny in Germany, or the many, many months spent "on the road" backpacking prepared me for the reality of living in another country permanently.

Age probably played a large role in how I reacted to life here at first. I feel as though at 24, I was full of expectations and didn't understand that others were not meant to fulfill these expectations for me. I think at 37 I have a better understanding of my own responsibility in relation to the world around me.

Despite my adjustment time, the culture shock, the loneliness, the fact is, that I like being a "stranger". I like the feeling of being "a stranger in a strange land". I feel comfortable being uncomfortable and I feel comfortable in situations and places where I know nothing. I cope well with it.

I share the feeling mentioned in the article that "home" is a difficult concept to pin down. Living abroad for so many years, home is everywhere and nowhere... it's here, it's there, it's Sri Lanka and Chile too... We have an unusual family, one where each member is from not only a different country but a different continent. Both children come from their own countries and have in their genes and memories, their own histories, languages, even religions... These things contribute to a sense of belonging to many cultures and places and also to having an international mindset.

Of course Canada is my home and I am happy (and curious about what it will be like) to return there after so many years. But Norway is also home. How could it not have grown to be home too? And Europe itself feels like home to me in my heart in a way that North America feels unfamiliar. And yet in some ways, North America is as familiar to me as the blood in my veins.

I left Canada as a young adult and feel as though I will have to learn many things all over again. I like the advice in the article to treat repatriating the same way as moving to somewhere unknown. Although I will have more in my favor, I will be able to speak the language, I have my family there and many friends. I believe that living there will be a great opportunity for our family, perhaps for the children most of all. Canada is an amazing, vast, multicultural and beautiful country. It will be good. Just as being here was good in many ways.

Friday, 2 June 2017

The Last Time I Saw My Grandpa

The last time I saw my grandpa I was 21 years old.  Hadn't seen him since I was 12 and before that, I had just a handful of visits with him but I remembered his deep, rough voice and his laugh.  His honest kindness.  He liked to tease, he was funny.  I held him up high in my memories, I loved him without question.

He was a fascinating and unconventional man.  He owned three antique/junk shops.  I remember visiting one when I was 12. It was walking into Aladdin's cave to me.  Dust settled all over glittery things.  Beautiful ornate things.  Odd clutter.  Piles of comics and books.  Interesting jewelry.  Pieces of people's lives.

"Choose anything you want!"  he said, cigarette hanging out of his mouth, a smile on his face.  I was shy at 12.  I chose a butter dish.  An odd choice for a 12 year old but it was a thing of beauty, the dark red-purple glass shone like jewels...

But anyway, the last time I saw him, we met at a pub, The Magpie and Stump, in Banff.  He was back, briefly, from Haiti.  He was just passing through.  Couldn't stay long because the road out there, the road out there, it always called and it had a strong voice.

It was dark in the Magpie.  We sat there for hours.  Long enough for him to smoke about two packages of cigarettes.  The waitress came back every ten minutes to empty the ash tray and pour more black coffee.  He called her "sweetheart" and I could see she was charmed by him.

He'd lived in Haiti for years at this point.  Ever since the day he sold those antique shops and everything else except his car which he drove from Ontario to Florida.  Went away forever, aside from the occasional trip back home to Ontario.  Chatham to Florida to Haiti. Beautiful, dangerous Haiti.

He'd written letters about lying awake at night listening to voo doo drums in the distance.  He wrote us about finding a dead body on his doorstep.  Although he had owned the antique shops, he was a carpenter by profession, so he lived near a group of nuns and built house after house for the poor there.  Constant action, constant work, constant love.

He loved the people there.  He saw need and beauty and truth in them.  He used the money he had left and paid for collage educations for girls so that they could be nurses instead of having to work in other, far worse, professions.  He joked with the children and made friends of the adults.  Because he was authentic in the way he treated others, the people he met loved him.  He wrote story after story about the individuals he met.

My favorite was a simple one.  Nothing "huge".  Nothing like paying for a collage education or building a house but it moved me all the more for its simplicity.  He wrote about a homeless old lady who refused to live in a shelter.  She just wanted her head rubbed.  To be touched.  He wrote to me that he made time to go see her and to rub her head.  That moved me because in life, is that simple act of love not equally as great as ones we would consider greater?  He wrote about her with genuine affection:

"This little sweetheart loved to have her head rubbed.  She didn't want to live in an institution in town because all her dead friends were still in the neighborhood.  Eventually she joined them."

He corrected wrongs where he could.  He wrote of how many people died of starvation.

"This man is a resident at the homeless shelter.  Here he is enjoying a snack.  When I returned he had died --- of starvation.  I checked through the town and made arrangements for the Sisters of Charity to provide food for the remaining 8 crippled residents.  So for the past three years now, no one has died of starvation.  This cost 45 US dollars a month."

There were countless such stories that he described in his forthright yet humble way.  These letters and stories made me want to go to Haiti and work with him.  At 14, it was my strongest wish.  Instead I went to Catholic boarding school and read the history books he sent me and the letters he wrote.  I studied the photos he sent and dreamed of a "bigger" life.

However I never went to Haiti and years passed before I saw him again.

The last time I saw my grandpa, we sat across a dark wood table from one another.  The Magpie was dim and the steady stream of smoke from his cigarettes made my eyes burn and his conversation made my head spin.  He was a brilliant man and he wanted to talk.  Well, not talk, he wanted to argue.  He was intensely intelligent, often argumentative, self-educated, a prolific writer of fascinating letters and an avid reader.  He enjoyed playing the devil's advocate.  He was good man with a good heart but he wasn't really an "easy" man.

The oldest son of Icelandic immigrants.  A hard worker all his life.  A man at home in unusual places with unusual people.

He made unconventional choices.  He cared deeply and intensely for the poor, for criminals, for the marginalized.  He was a man at ease when at work, when providing for those who couldn't provide for themselves.

I could have been wrong but that last time I saw my grandpa, I thought I heard anger running through his words.  Anger at injustice, anger at the world we live in.  Anger at some of us having everything and some having nothing.  An anger that wanted to understand how this could be so.

His sense of humor was wry.  He wanted to engage.  But he was talking to the wrong person.

I wanted to know him.  To ask him more about so many things he had written to me about in his ten page letters.  I thought he might want to get to know me as well.  Looking back, he probably did want to know me.  But he wanted to know me through verbal combat.  It's safe to say, he didn't fit the traditional, cozy grandpa stereotype.

I remember him challenging me on where I got my information about various things from.  Asking me from across the table, "Do you even read books?  And come on, don't just tell me you read fiction!"  I could hear the disdain for "fiction" in his voice.  I sat there bewildered and answered that I read all the time.

I felt like every question he asked me was an attack.  Now I understand it's just the way he spoke, the way he connected with people.  He liked a challenge, he liked to question everything and he enjoyed making comfortable people uncomfortable.  He delighted in a mind that could logically argue, defend it's point of view, but I've never been like that.

After a few hours, he gave me the last hug he ever gave me and drove off into the mountains.  I cried on and off for days.  I didn't know what to make of him.  I was sorry we had had such a terrible and upsetting visit.  He later told my mom it had been a fantastic visit. :)  When I heard that I remember feeling angry with him but now, it makes me smile that while I found our visit stressful and confrontational, he enjoyed it.  I'm glad that to him, our last visit was "fantastic".

I think William, my grandfather, was a good man with an authentically good heart and soul.  He was extraordinarily gentle and caring with those he met in Haiti.  I think he was also searching all his life for something he already possessed without knowing he possessed it.

His whole life, if one were to write it, would make a fascinating story.  These few paragraphs are only my poor and incomplete description of our last meeting and some of the history that went before it.  I can't possibly claim to understand him and I know I don't have a full picture of his life.  I have only little glimpses.  Bright memories full of sunshine and dust.  An inherited love for "old" things.  I have words written in faded ink on paper and on the back of pictures.

But then again,, all we ever have of someone else is our own filtered impressions and they may differ greatly in comparison to someone elses but the things I write about him are how I perceived him.

Below is my favorite photo of him.

"My dance troupe.  When we were building the little house for a man and his family, we hauled the stone from the river about 200 yards away.  The children would climb on the truck to go to the river but coming back, there was no room for them so I would dance with them all the way to the building site.  The little girl on my right made up a song about dancing with grand pere which all the kids sang as we danced, much to the amusement of the neighbors."

His heart was in Haiti.  He left a legacy of good there...

(I have written more about him here:

Monday, 19 December 2016

Advent Done Badly

I sat at home alone yesterday morning, while my husband bundled up our two sons and took them out to mass on his own.  For the third Sunday in a row.

I did try.  I got up, got dressed, had coffee and even got in the car but in the end, I came home.

I walked through the front door, threw my coat over the back of the nearest chair and fell gracelessly onto our red couch, where the day before we found the body of our beloved cat who had died peacefully in her sleep.  I looked around and saw the advent candles, all still the same size they were at the beginning of advent.  The Christmas tree that I have to say looks beautiful because William decorated it on his own, stimming with excitement after putting on each ornament, all the bottom branches boasting three or four glittery balls.

I put my head in my hands in exhaustion and thought of all the plans I'd had to make this advent THE advent.  The most peaceful, the most spiritual, the most beautiful one yet.  In my mind we would gather around the dark wooden dining room table in the evenings, light a candle, I'd read a Christmas story in my most gentle and motherly voice.  My sons would listen.  It would be magic.

And in regards to myself, I had decided confidently at the beginning of advent I would grow so much spiritually.  I would meditate on the first Christmas, I would journey with the Holy Family.  I would pray the rosary and be filled with unshakable peace and joy.  I would be generous and not yell or get angry or judge people or focus on myself.

As I read back what I have written, maybe therein lies the irony.  I would not focus on myself.  What were all my great plans and expectations, if not the ultimate focusing on myself?  How good I'd be and how I'd be that spiritual and good all on my own.  All because I decided to and I had the strength and discipline to carry it out.

How I would benefit from an advent full of quiet peace.  A cozy, candlelit, storybook preparation for the sacred birth of our Lord.

Then I could hand the Lord these things at the end of Advent and say "Look how perfectly I've preformed!  Look what I have done!"

However, the reality has been that I haven't made it to even one mass this advent.  I did maybe six reflections with the kids and then the books I laid out with such good intentions, sat unopened.  I have been so tired and worn down that I have complained every day.  This advent has passed in a flurry of changing sheets, illness, exhaustion, impatience, trying to calm meltdowns, trying to explain the death of a much loved animal to a little boy who thinks the cat died because we didn't pet her enough.
Yet nothing catastrophic has happened.  Only daily distractions, small daily failures and sorrows.  Somehow the spiritual got all lost in the mundane.

Some wise friends helped me to remember though, that the spiritual is also found in the mundane.  I tend to separate the two.  As in, if I am a success at spiritual living, all aspects of my life will fall into place and I will no doubt awe others with the transcendent glow that surrounds me.  If I am not successful, well then, it all falls apart.

Deep in my heart, I know it all falls apart anyway.  I can't make anything perfect.  Not myself, not my children, or my home, or my prayer life.  I don't have that sort of power or control.

Maybe I approach this Christmas with hands full of ugly, imperfect offerings.  Approach the stable tired and a little disillusioned. With only unsuccessful attempts as gifts.  Here's all my impatience Lord.  Here's my quick temper.  My sharp tongue.  Here's all the yelling and exasperation that my kids didn't deserve.  Here's my grief, yes, grief, over the loss of our cat.  Here are all the things I put before you.  Here are all my other gods.

Maybe I approach with these imperfect gifts but I don't leave empty handed.

I know the soft glow of joy that is found in uncomfortable circumstances.  The knowledge that failure isn't always as it appears.  The promise that we can be made new.  Again and again if need be.  And need be.  In this season of Advent, rather than give, I can ask for healing, for humility, for gentleness, for all the things I lack.

I can keep trying.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

The Mug That Said "Embrace Change": The Aftermath of a Meltdown

I wipe down the counter.  After putting away the things that don't belong there, I stop and look.
What's left?  A grapefruit.  A folded blue cloth.  A fat mug with words "Embrace Change" written on it.

I feel a sudden irrational rush of resentment.

I feel, unfairly, that those words failed me, owed me something and let me down.

I am a happy embracer of change, I really am, I want to say out loud to someone.  My adult life has been spent adapting to all sorts of changes.  I am good at change, I think stubbornly.  I don't resist it, I roll with it.

This time though, my heart contracts and the words on the mug become blurry.  I think, rather unreasonably, Stupid mug!  What do you know about change?  I glare at it and its pretty flowers and calm color.

I step back.  One physical step only but much further away in my mind.

Until all things large and small become distant.

Time stops.

There has been another tornado.  My palms turned upwards in dismay.  It's left miles and miles of damage and debris.  Things got broken.  Time seemed to stand still.  For awhile we just existed in the eye of the storm.

A gentle question.  How was it?  Were you afraid?


 It was...unspeakable.  Inconceivable.  It seemed to come from nowhere.  The sky had been calm for a month. Nothing!  I had looked out my window, there were no small funnel clouds hovering menacingly over fields.  There was no darkening of the sky.  The wind didn't even pick up.  There were no alarms ringing in the air, telling us to run.  Get somewhere safe. To be somewhere safe.

I live where this sort of thing happens sometimes.  But even so, I forget pretty easily.  Second guess myself.  After awhile, when all evidence of the storm is gone, I go about my day, I smile to myself.  Maybe... it wasn't so bad, that last time.  It takes on the quality of a dream...of something not quite real...

But that's the weather for you.  That's life for you.  Isn't it?  

Later, there's a lot of discussion.  A lot of explaining the details.  A lot of words on paper.  A lot of change on the horizon.

In the aftermath, everything feels suspended.  Tender.

There is a little, still so little really, black haired boy skipping down the road ahead of me, a lopsided backpack half the size of his body, hanging off his shoulders.  Turning, peering at me over his shoulder.

"Mommy?  Do you still love me?"

"There's nothing you can do that would make me stop."

And silently I think "I've got this.  I've got you.  Don't worry.  We are going to take care of this somehow."

Friday, 27 May 2016

Schoolyard Bullying

Bullying.  A word that has only gained in intensity and power despite its frequent use.  Everyone is outraged by bullying. It is the hot topic at parent meetings and "zero tolerance for bullying" has become every school's catch phrase.

And rightly so.  Consistent bullying is intolerable and can lead to horrific situations and leave lifelong wounds, especially on the heart of a small child, unequipped to make sense of a situation that would baffle most adults.  We have all read the stories, horror stories really,  of children and teenagers who take their own lives as a result of prolonged, systematic bullying.

We read these stories and try to convince ourselves that these things couldn't touch us on such a devastating level.  

We tell ourselves that a child who is bullied so badly that they take their own life must not receive the necessary love or attention at home to overcome the bullying by their peers.  A child who would take their own life must not have really been taught how great their worth was, how precious and irreplaceable they were.  However, if we are honest, we know that this is not always the case.  It's far more complex than that.  A child who is terrorized daily on the playground may have vulnerabilities in other areas already and may not have the capacity to cope with or process the trauma they are enduring.

Sometimes the most loving home in the world can't save a child who has been made to feel so utterly worthless.  

It is frightening to acknowledge that sometimes the most secure home isn't enough.

Bullying is intolerable.  

Schools should have a zero tolerance policy.  These words instill confidence, the idea that something is being done right, but is there substance behind these words?  

Sometimes a concern about bullying is met with something frighteningly similar to victim blaming.  "I am sorry but your child isn't like other children.  I'm sorry but your child doesn't read social situations very well.  I am sorry but..."

In essence, I'm sorry but somehow your child has brought this upon himself.

The bottom line is that these "I'm sorry but" comments are essentially contradictory to the idea of having a zero tolerance for bullying policy in the first place.  These comments in fact, contribute to bullying rather than lead to finding a solution.  The message given is that children could avoid being bullied if they would just conform to a standard notion of normal.  If they could manage to become just like everyone so as not to stand out in any way.

Is this what we want for our children?  It isn't what I want for mine.  The answer to bullying is not conformity or eliminating differences or the very things that make someone an individual.  As my children grow, I don't want to teach them to blend in and not stand out.  I want to teach them to stand up and be who they are and were created to be, even if who they are is a little bit quirky, a little bit different.  

We can try to teach ourselves and our children courage, empathy and hard things like how to stand up for someone who is being hurt or made fun of.  We can try to help them understand that a person is allowed to be different.  

It's important to keep teaching children that there are obvious differences we see at once.  For example, we may remember to teach our children that we don't bully a child who has a different skin color or who speaks with an accent.  We may remember to teach them not to make fun of someone who has uses a wheelchair or a child who has a visible disability.

It's also important to teach our children and perhaps ourselves, that there are less obvious differences as well.  Disabilities or syndromes we don't see or understand fully because a child seems "normal" on the surface.  The little boy who is bright and engaging but obsesses over one thing and repeats himself constantly.  The child who is sitting quietly in class and suddenly has a series of noticeable vocal or motor tics.  A child with sensory issues who has trouble processing the light, feel, noise, and speed of the world around them and experiences meltdowns or shutdowns.  All of these things may seem funny to classmates until someone sits down and explains to them what is actually happening to the child experiencing these things.  

That that child may just think a little differently and understand and experience the world a little differently.  Most importantly, that there is room in the world for everyone and it's ok to be a little different.  It's a pretty good lesson to take with us as we go through life.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Things I Would Like To Control

Tonight I am not looking to produce a brilliant piece of writing.
I am just looking to control the things I can control.
It's been the worst.
The most overwhelming.
I feel like between this and that, I can't quite reach the surface to draw breath.
I find myself wanting to scream at innocent people saying normal things
The words I always so smugly deemed as arrogant:
You don't understand.
But of course, I bite my tongue.
I had this urge tonight to smash my fist into a wall in frustration.
Or to see it fly through glass.
I, the peace loving, non confrontational, smiling optimist.
But of course, I kept my fists to myself.

Because I have to be emotionally stable now.
I don't get the luxury of hurling raw emotions all over the place
And leaving others to wade through the debris.

I am just looking to control the things I can control.
It's how I know when I am overwhelmed.

I struggle with a sweeping desire for clarity,
And when I can't find it.
I feel the panic burning in my throat and I want it gone.
Everything.  Every excess thing.
I want it all gone from my sight, gone from my home.

I keep hoping that in one of these purging binges, I find it.
That I will raise my eyebrows, give a rueful laugh,
Oh there it is!  Clarity was just hiding in the back of my overstuffed closet!

Material things, they make it so I can't breathe.

As soon as life starts spiraling, I start trying to breathe by throwing clothing into bags to give to a friend, by piling books on the floor to give to the library, by tossing papers and pictures into the garbage.  I open up my cupboards and slam them shut again, take a deep breath, overwhelmed by the excess...

Each thing that leaves the house gives me a rush of vivid relief.
A heady injection of the illusion of control.

The truth of it is this:
Material things are things I can control.

Things I can't control:
I can't stop someone from hurting,  Not even someone who is my world, my heart.

Walking home from dropping my son off at school in the morning, my stomach in knots, my heart pounding heartbreak, there's so much I can't control.

I can't keep him safe.  I can't protect him from the laughter, and fists, and words.

I can't keep his shining exuberance intact.  I can't wrap my arms around him and keep him from being hurt.

And this is when it hits me, the helplessness I feel.  I wish there was a contract I could have signed.
Between God and I when I became a parent.

It would have asked me to confirm please,
Am I willing to take all the pain, all the needless suffering this child might experience, on myself,
Let him get through life whole, unscathed?
Sign and date below.

I would have done it.  I would have said, yes anything.  Just let him keep his smile.

If that were a thing I could control.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Blogging: Succeeding At The Things That Don't Matter

“Our greatest fear should not be of failure but of succeeding at things in life that don't matter.”  - Francis Chan

I first started blogging in 2007 when my husband and I first decided to adopt.  I began a blog called "Carpe Diem, Gorgeous!" and simply wrote. That was really all I did with the blog.  I didn't worry much about stats aside from thinking it was great fun to see the various countries those who visited it came from.  I didn't spend time on blog promotion groups, I don't even think they existed then.  I may have occasionally shared a post to my personal Facebook page but rarely.  Getting things shared on social media wasn't yet a "thing".  I never heard someone mention "going viral" or having that as a goal.  I never heard of blogging goals at all.  I never thought about my blog "making it big".  In fact, the main reason I stopped blogging at Carpe Diem was because I felt I had too many readers (in reality, not a huge amount!) and I didn't want it to become more about the readers than about the actual writing.  This isn't vanity speaking, this stems from the fact that although I love writing and publish many personal things, I also have a deep, contradictory need for privacy.  

Looking back, I think that we had more fun blogging then.  Blogging was more relaxed.  Many wrote simply for the pleasure of writing.  This can be argued of course since it is only a personal opinion but it's how it felt.  We all connected then through browsing and truly enjoying other's blogs, commenting and building strong relationships.  After a couple years of blogging, I had a good readership and a strong, close group of people that I interacted with (and interact with still in may cases) and many of those people became friends.  

I took a break from blogging (not writing) for several years and came back to discover blogging is business now.  Blogging is serious and competitive.  Blogging is less than ever about personal interaction and more about numbers of followers on social media.  Much (not all) content has become quite bland or on the contrary, purposely controversial.  Less about actual writing and more about succeeding at blogging itself.  I find that I have trouble making myself care about all these things blogging is now supposed to be.  I just want an emotional and creative outlet.

I care about writing and authenticity.  I care about reading what other people are genuinely concerned about or what touches their hearts.  I care about beautiful, interesting, clever, creative writing.  I care about the people behind the words.  I care about interaction and sharing.  I care about reaching people.

I like to write serious things and I like to have fun with writing.  I like a little, unprofessional, non- trendy blog.

The articles I send out into the world for publication are one thing.  I write them because I want people to share and read them.  What I write here is different. Sometimes I want to write things here that are more private, that I don't want to be shared many times or seen by many people. Things that are just for me.  

In the end, people may like or dislike what I write but I am the one who knows whether I am satisfied with what I have written.  That knowledge has to come from inside myself.  

Writers need to have a combination of assurance and uncertainty to maintain authenticity and vulnerability.  Blogging is one thing.  Writing another.  And sometimes, people manage to combine the two.        

Happy writing!  I'm still having fun!:)