I’m dreaming of a place where you cannot find the horizon because ocean and sky blend into one another and the world seems endless and beautiful.
At some point, I do plan on writing about being a TCK. I really do. But that’s not what this post is about. This post is about those cozy little places or the things you keep that make you feel at home.
Nothing says home to me like being a regular somewhere. I’ve had this really exciting life that has left me completely comfortable jetting off anywhere on my own, ready for adventure, but it has also made it so that I am happiest when I have a routine. When I have a place I can go where they know my name, know my order, know what’s going on in my life. Last semester, it was a pub. I was there a few times a week, I knew the staff, they knew my drink, they knew what was going on in my life. I knew them. I knew where their cousins lived and who was quitting and why. This semester, it’s a coffee shop. I’m getting to know the regular cast of characters, I know which barista is a musician, which is an artist, which one is exploring Scientology. They know what I’m working on, they know my handwriting, they know where I’ve lived. There is nothing quite so cozy as being a regular. I have my favourite spot, and once or twice a week I plunk myself down with my laptop and write.
Being a reader and a writer, it shouldn’t surprise anybody that I also find homes in books. There are a few books that I cart around from city to city and country to country because they’re comfortable. Familiar. They are worlds I understand, which is a pretty critical thing to have when you change cities every few years. I know how they work and when I’m overwhelmed, I retreat into them.
The climbing gym often serves as a home for me, too. So do my favourite CDs. Sports are home, and my favourite movies.
Home is a funny thing. I had to write an essay on it this semester and I really struggled with how to define it. Finally, I realize that home isn’t always a physical place, it’s not four walls and a roof. It’s the place where you’ve internalized the rules, where you can just live without the constant work of remembering how things should be. It’s little things like knowing which is the salt shaker and which is pepper, or how to say hello and goodbye. I just happen to need more portable homes than most people do. But I kind of like it this way. Home is anywhere, home is everywhere.
It can be nowhere, too, but I’m not going to think about that right now.
Last night, my friend and I went to go see Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake. Neither of us is really familiar with the traditional Swan Lake, but this version was incredible. The dancers were amazing and the combination of modern setting and traditional music was incredible – if you’re at all familiar with ballet, you know the theme from Swan Lake. Now, imagine that playing while the prince is sitting outside of a club, dejected, with a neon sign reading “Swank Bar” glowing above him.
But one of the things that interested me most as a writer was seeing the way various issues I have with writing came to life onstage. There was always something to watch, and often you needed to be able to pay attention to multiple things at once. There was a beautiful moment where the prince, the queen, the girlfriend, and the queen’s aide/secretary/whatever were watching a more traditional ballet. The ballet itself was beautiful, but the story is in the box with the four characters. The girlfriend cannot do anything right: she cannot sit at the correct time, she cannot be still, she cannot keep her purse in her lap. Often I’d be so distracted by the ballet the characters were watching that I’d miss the character development happening onstage. But the dancers managed it so carefully, if I did watch the main characters, I could see exactly how their relationships were developing.
As writers, it’s a bit easier to force a reader to shift focus since sentences (and writing in general) is much more linear than dance, but it’s a challenge many of us need to face up to. In our scenes, we need the reader to be interested in everything going on, but all scenes need to develop character/further plot. It does not need to be the focus of the scene, but nothing can exist simply because we want it there. Everything needs to do work. We can write a beautifully crafted scene – and we should! – but it also needs to be a point at which something happens for the story. Scene and plot are not separate, they are parts of a larger whole, and if we forget that, we cheat the reader out of an important connection.
That said, if we restricted a story to just the main characters, we would have a very dull book. We are all immersed in a world where the people around us have their own lives, their own goals, and sometimes they help us achieve ours and other times they hinder us. Things happen simultaneously, and some people are happy and some are not. Swan Lake handled this well – in every group scene, each dancer and each group of dancers knew their story, and every move they made furthered it. Anywhere you looked onstage, something was happening. Relationships were forming and crumbling all over the place, and all of it echoed the struggle the prince was going through. Scene and secondary (and tertiary) characters brought emotional resonance to the prince’s plight by showing the audience everything he could not have, and showing us exactly why he wanted it.
Was my brain working in overdrive last night? Definitely. But it was doing so because I was so enthralled by what I was watching, I couldn’t help but try to learn from it, to take some of its beauty and some of its genius home with me and hope to find a way to let it impact my writing. And that’s the best thing the arts can do, I think – give us something to make our day-to-day lives more beautiful and more exciting than they would be otherwise.
I like to think that I’m a pretty straightforward person. I’m honest about what I want (to a fault, sometimes), I’m honest about who I care about, I’m honest about who I am. I don’t like to pretend, I don’t like to play games, and I don’t like trying to remember what I’ve said. So I just say what I think. It’s easier that way.
But somehow, people get confused about me. They meet me and think I’m a certain way, get talking to me, and find things to validate those assumptions. And then, somewhere along the line, I say something and they do a double take. A triple take.
For example: Once upon a time, I had bright purple hair. I mean, bright purple hair. I have always been a little bit of a punk deep down inside; I love loud, angry music and piercings and tattoos more than my mother would like me to. Guys with tattoos make me stop and stare far longer than is strictly socially acceptable. If I had to draw my dream guy, he’d be tall with tattoos and a labret piercing and maybe an eyebrow piercing, just for good measure.
And so, when I finally quit my corporate job, I got the chance to really embrace that part of myself. The day after I left the office, I sat in my hair stylist’s chair and went from dark brown hair to purple. But I’d forgotten the assumptions new people make about things like purple hair. So it was a bit of a shock to me when, after a month or two of being friends, a guy I knew came back to my flat to have a couple beers and complain about school and noticed my icon of Mary and Jesus.
“Wait, is that really a picture of Jesus?”
“Yeah, it’s my icon.”
“But you don’t like…believe in that whole thing, do you?”
“Yeah. I do.”
He stopped and looked at me. “Huh. You just look like an atheist to me.”
I didn’t realize a person could look like an atheist. I didn’t realize people would draw this conclusion about me. In my head, I was clear. I had purple hair, I like things with skulls on them, I want to be a writer, I go to church every Sunday. All of these things are genuinely me, but the combination is apparently surprising.
It goes the other way, too. I’ve been told that I need to be “corrupted”, whatever that means. At 27 I am very comfortable saying I’ve done my time being wild, I’m quite content to stick with lamb dinners with port and truffles for dessert. But people (guys especially, for whatever reason) think that I’ve been like this my whole life. It wasn’t always ballet and poetry and port, I promise. There was a time when it was cheap vodka, bad beer, and stamps on my hand from seven different clubs in a night. But apparently I give off the “stick up her butt, but she’d be fun to party with if she let her hair down” vibe. My friend calls this “The Librarian Effect” which is accurate, if creepy.
What I’m realizing is that no matter how straightforward I think I am, I don’t actually have a clue who people think I am. I don’t know what assumptions they’re making about me, or what they think I really need. I just know that I like things the way they are, and whatever people think of me, it’s probably not any of my business anyways.
Yesterday was a glorious day.
The sun was out, the air was warm, and my portfolio had been turned in. I am officially in dissertation period, the point at which my life becomes solely about one story. One thought. One project.
Yeah, that’s gonna drive me crazy. I’ve got a few things in the works because otherwise I’ll go bonkers.
But yesterday I ignored all of that and sat out in the sun for a few hours with my friends and no sunscreen. Because I’m a moron. I am naturally super pale, and when you add the long Scottish winter to that mix, it’s not pretty. Not pretty at all. So now my arms are a combination of white, pink, and paaaaaaaaale brown and my skin feels just slightly too tight.
It’s funny how much happier I am in the sun, though. I smile more – a lot more – and the chaos of life seems manageable. I am a tropical girl, raised on sunshine and warmth, and I need days like yesterday. I soaked it up like a camel and I’m ready for the gloomy week to come. Because sunshine in Scotland is like calm in my life – a rare gift, and one to be thankful for.
Confession time: Sometimes I realize what a massive nerd I really am, and I revel in it.
When I was 15, my friend Garrett told me about a book. Well, he told me about a lot of books. And movies. Garrett was the guy I went to for that sort of thing. But this one book in particular stuck with me. We were hanging out at his house one day and he said, “Hey, you know what you need to read? House of Leaves.”
I’d tell you what it’s about, but the best way I can describe it is by saying that at the reading I went to last night, Mark Danielewski said, “It’s a book about a movie,” and the audience cracked up. I mean, sure. But it’s about more than that.
All of this is to say that last night I headed off to Blackwell’s to listen to him read and I had major butterflies. I’ve been reading his work (what little of it is out there, the man has a long and intense creative process) since I was 15. House of Leaves is, to this day, the only book to scare me so badly I still get chills when I think about it. He takes on simple moment – a book falling off a bookshelf – and makes it so scary I am freaking out a little right now just because I thought about it.
One of the things he was talking about last night was the way he wants his work to really play with media and form, how he wants it to exist in the space between image and text, the way he wants to challenge the basic idea of what can be done with text. His work is often called experimental, but he really sees himself as part of a longer tradition of writers who seek to use visual cues to clarify and intensify the reading experience (including the likes of Faulkner, before anybody thinks he’s only referencing obscure, avant garde writers).
And this is where I get to the part about me being a massive nerd. When I go to readings (and I’ve been trying to go to as many as I can lately – that’s one amazing thing about Edinburgh, there are readings just about every week), there is always a question and answer period that I do not participate in. You see, for as extroverted and social as I am, inside I’m the nervous little girl who got picked on in school. I worry that I’ll say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, ask the stupid question, and so I let this weird pressure from 12 year olds that only exist in my memory anymore stop me from asking a question I find interesting. Last week I heard Eleanor Catton read from The Luminaries and refused to ask anything because I was so nervous I’d be judged for asking a simple question, rather than something literary and complex. I just wanted to know how she handled her process – the book is meticulously plotted, the structure is intense, so was there room for surprise? Did anything in the book happen before she realized what was going on, and did it make her worry about the structure at all?
But this time I refused to be nervous. Okay, that’s a lie. This time, I refused to let my nervousness keep me from asking a question. When the floor was opened up for questions, I raised my hand. I asked my question. And nobody laughed. Nobody judged me. In fact, another girl in the audience (who had written her dissertation on House of Leaves so you know she cares deeply about his work) complimented me on it.
And this is what I realized – I’m here because I care about writing. I’m here because I want to be around other people that care about it as much as I do. I chose Edinburgh specifically because it’s a city with a deep literary tradition. I chose it because it’s the center of Scottish publishing. I chose it because every day of every week of every year there is an event going on that’s related to books. To literature. I chose a city where I could immerse myself in things like this, and the other people at these events probably feel the same way I do. The girl who wrote her dissertation on House of Leaves was truly excited to have him sign a copy of the book. I was so nervous about asking my question I had butterflies in my stomach, and when I got my copy of his new book signed and we chatted about Singlish, I had an adrenaline rush for an hour afterwards.
These are the celebrities I care about. People talk about movie stars and musicians, and I understand how they’d be exciting to meet (especially musicians that write their own music, not the people who are solely performers – what can I say? I value creativity). The people I want to meet don’t have their pictures everywhere – I wouldn’t have recognized Mark Danielewski if I saw him on the street – but they care deeply about the things I care about, and they’re passionate about their work, and their minds work in ways I want to understand.
Maybe one day I’ll sit where he was sitting, maybe not. But if so, I hope that when somebody in the front row is sitting there, too scared to raise their hand all the way for fear they actually be called on, I give their question as much consideration and respect as he gave mine.
Sometimes I think we all have a secret super power. Something we’re eerily good at that most people aren’t. Maybe you can figure out a recipe just by tasting the food, or you’ve never misheard a song lyric in your life. I get guys I’m not dating to propose to me.
There is something about me that makes guys see white picket fences. Babies. Fights over who did the laundry last time and, seriously, could you please just remember to take out the trash today? Please? It is the most bizarre and confusing superpower I have ever come across.
Confusing because, once they’re actually with me, these guys decide that no…they’d really rather not. No joke, I have had four guys propose to me, all claiming to be asking in earnest. Their plans for the future have ranged from the honest admission that “I don’t actually know what I’d do if you said yes. I’d be happy, but I don’t have it, like, planned out or anything…” to elaborately thought-out transcontinental lives. All of them involve children. And what’s funny is that sometimes I can actually picture what life would be like if I settled down with them. And all of them are very different visions of myself.
Transcontinental friend – I’d be a stay at home mom. I’d write, I’d take the kids to school, we’d cook dinner together. I’d look the part of the nerdy housewife, all jeans and Doctor Who t-shirts and MST3K jokes.
Football player – hahaha, just no. I lied. I couldn’t picture this life because it was just such a bizarre experience.
The guy who proposed less than 30 seconds after learning my name (and again later) – We’d work our asses and never see each other. What overlapping free time we had would be spent being super lazy. I’d write, I’d write a ton, in part because just being around him was so tempestuous that I’d never lack for material. I’d dye my hair crazy colours, I’d get a few more tattoos, I’d be in jeans and black band t-shirts most of the time.
The ex – It’d be nuts. He brings out the crazy in me and we’d alternate between having a lot of fun and me getting frustrated with having to manage his life and mother him. We’d run a business together. He’d be the more hands-on parent. I’d have short purple hair and pink hair and blue hair and full sleeves of tattoos and maybe even a tan.
I could be any of these women, with varying degrees of happiness. Truly, I contain multitudes.
But that’s the funny thing. I can be so many things and be happy doing so many things that it’s almost hard to pick a partner because that’s picking a life. It’s saying, “Not only am I choosing you instead of anybody else on the planet, I’m choosing the person I am with you.” It’s not that we won’t all change and grow in our lives, but once you pick a partner, you decide to grow with them, which may not be a direction you’d be inclined towards on your own. And that freaks me out. Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea of being with somebody long-term, but choosing a self?
Or I could just wait until I find a guy that accepts my multitudes and would be fine with me being a writer with short purple hair and only a couple of tattoos who can still host a dinner party and rock jeans or a cocktail dress as the occasion demands.
Yeah. I like that option.
Once upon a time, a very active girl had a very bad injury. She hadn’t listened to her body, she hadn’t rested it when it needed rest, and the punishment was severe. After surgery and after a lot of pain and rehab, she was given the green light to start yoga. She’d never done yoga before, but she was finally allowed to do something with her body again, so yoga it was.
Intimidated, she walked into the yoga studio and asked to go to a class. She was shaking, but she didn’t know why. She had a cheap mat like every other newbie, she had yoga pants and a tank top, she had everything that could mark her as Somebody Who Had Done Their Research. The woman behind the desk – a woman this girl would eventually practice with, be friends with, spend hours on a mat with – was very kind and welcoming and told the girl not to be afraid. She’d love it.
And she did.
From February – August of last year, yoga was part of my life. I was in the studio three times a week, taking hot yoga classes and Pilates classes and aerial yoga classes. I learned about inversions and arm balances and spinal alignment. The first time I saw somebody do crow, I thought, “No way. There’s no way I’ll ever be able to do that.” And then, a month later, I got it. Not for long, just long enough to say, “Oh!” and fall. But I got it. I worked at it over and over and over, until I could goof around in the climbing gym and do it. So I did. Often.
When I moved to Edinburgh, I was so overwhelmed I did not go to the gym the first four months I was here. I joined it, but I didn’t go. I didn’t find a yoga studio. I didn’t climb. I did nothing. And then, after more drama than I could take, I realized my body desperately needed to move. I was sitting in my favourite bookstore shaking because I had so much pent-up energy racing through my body, and I realized I needed to climb. I needed to boulder. I needed to move. So I did. My friend Hayley and I started climbing together about 3 times a week. I put all of my workout eggs into that pre-paid basket, and I progressed. I progressed in a major way. From January-April, I went from being a 4+ climber to a 6A+ climber (soooo for my American friends, that’s going from about a 5.8 to a 5.10c).
But I’d forgotten about yoga. I haven’t even unrolled my mat since leaving the US. It’s funny, because yoga was such a calming experience for me, but it was a challenge in the same way climbing is. You have to focus on what you’re doing, think it through, experiment with body positioning and balance, and be willing to fail. Be willing to fail over and over and over again until you don’t fail. When the guys at the gym set new routes, they’ll ask Hayley and I to test them out. “Fine,” I’ll say. “But you’re going to watch me fail a few times.”
Their response? “Good.” Every time.
The thing is, it’s not fun if it’s not a challenge. It’s not fun if you don’t have to work at it, experiment, think your way through. It’s why we continue to climb harder grades – it’s no fun when things are easy.
So yesterday, after a really successful day climbing and finding a new project (a route I couldn’t complete that I want to be able to climb), I wanted to try something.
I wanted to try crow again.
Like I said, I haven’t done yoga in ages. I haven’t tried crow in ages. I haven’t paid any attention to make sure my body could move the way I wanted it to move, but I wanted to try it anyways.
Well, will you look at that?
I came to this program with a story to tell. I have a book in my brain that nobody has written, and I desperately want to read it. I’ve tried to write it a few times, getting a few thousand words in before giving up. It’s a tricky book, a scary one, a book that I believe in so badly but have never been the kind of person who could write it. Since getting here, I haven’t tried to write it once. I haven’t let myself go into that world.
But I’m ready now. Or, if not, I’ve spent so much time thinking about other stories and other characters that it’s time to revisit the big one. The important one. Because the thing about trying crow at the gym was getting it prompted me to try a few other things I’ve never tried before. I tried side crow. I tried dragonfly. I failed at both, but I’m energized to keep trying. I’m going to write this story and it’s going to be clumsy at first and it’s going to be awkward and I’m going to fall on my face in front of my friends and my professor, but I’m going to get it written.
This book of mine will have a birthday. This body of mine will do a handstand. And these things will happen because I know what it feels like to fail – it feels energizing. It feels scary. And it feels more exciting than anything each time I get just a little bit closer to success.
I’m what’s known as a Third Culture Kid. I spent my childhood in the US, Thailand, and Singapore, creating a bizarre cultural blend never seen before or since. If we’re all products of our environments, my environment was a product of my dad’s job, and my dad’s job took us all over the place. As such, I am more than a little culturally confused. When I’m really tired, it’s frighteningly common for me to mix up my languages, so I might respond to “Hablas Español?” with “Nit noy!” or to suddenly lose the word for “chicken” in English but be able to remember it in Danish (despite not speaking Danish).
But one of the oddest things about TCKs compared to our more localized counterparts is how we conduct our friendships. My friend Hannah is getting married in October and I’m a bridesmaid, despite not having seen her in about six years. Maybe seven. Actually, I think it’s seven. Her friends in Oregon think this is completely bizarre. It’s totally normal to us. We’re still close, even when we don’t talk, even when we don’t see each other. Hannah is an important part of my life.
As is my friend, Gregg. Gregg (affectionately known as either “My Gregg” or “Kilt Guy”) and I have known each other for ten years, but I could count on one finger the number of times I’ve seen him since my parents left Singapore. We happened to be in Dublin at the same time a few years ago, so we spent our days with our families and our nights drinking beer all over the city. Gregg knows his beer. We keep in touch, we chat every now and then, and when we’re near each other’s current country, we visit.
So now I find myself planning a trip to Barcelona (a city I love, but have already been to twice) to go hang out on the couch of a guy I’ve seen once in the last ten years. The nice thing is, though, there is no stress. We both have a ton of time to kill, I want to see the sun, and it’ll be good to catch up. I mean, let’s be honest – who knows when I’m going to see him again?
Instead of writing my essay – the last academic essay I ever plan on writing – I am mentally flitting off to various countries on tiny little holidays meant just for me. I’m dreaming of Spanish beaches and Parisian flats and wandering the streets of Belfast. (Okay, those are the holidays I’m actually planning, and possibly none of them would be on my own.) I’m dreaming of Kilimanjaro and Angkor Wat and the Himalayas.
But at the same time, I’m dreaming of a flat in Edinburgh with a flatmate or two and my pictures on the walls and Sunday breakfast.
I’m torn. My heart needs to wander, my heart needs to nest. I need to get on a plane, I need to watch the clouds below me, I need the sense of coming back down to earth. I need a clean flat, a good dinner on the stove, a bookcase overflowing with books. I need a home to come back to before I can leave.
TS Eliot once said, “Home is where one starts from.” Where did I start? Am I starting now? If I leave and come back, does that make this home? Is it that simple, can I claim it so easily?
The truth is, I’m as torn as I ever am. Travel is healing, but the familiar is comfortable. I’m taking a day and going out to Glasgow soon and, for the first time, I’m slightly intimidated about going somewhere by myself. It’s worrying me. I don’t stress about flying off to a country where I don’t speak a word of the language and wandering around, but taking the train out to a new city is scaring me now. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s because I thought I would have somebody to explore with.
When I moved over here, there was a very clear plan. But, for a variety of reasons, that plan no longer exists. Can never exist again. I’m operating with no more than a vague sense of where I want to go, and that terrifies me. It’s not that I can’t find a new plan – I will. I always have. It’s more that, for the first time in a really, really long time, I’m letting myself hang in the nothingness. I’m embracing the fear and the nervousness and I’m just living.
My world is small right now, and the idea of opening it up is scary. Edinburgh is the best adventure I’ve ever had, Scotland owns my heart in a way I didn’t think any country ever could. But I’m starting to think I’m a little bit lonely.