While we were in Michigan after my father’s death, we had the great fortune to spend time with extended family. One of my favorite moments was the Saturday before Halloween, when James and I took the kids to a pumpkin patch and brought home a haul of pumpkins to carve with my Uncles Lee and Chris. Carving pumpkins with Uncle Lee is one of my favorite childhood memories, and it was such a joy to watch my children participate in this same ritual with him.
One of the things we miss most about living far away, especially living abroad, is having a larger circle of family in our kids’ lives. I grew up running wild with cousins, spending weekends at my grandparents’ pool, and impatiently waiting for visits from Uncle Lee, who lived in Chicago, and who always came back to Kalamazoo with new games and puzzles. In contrast, our kids see their extended family a couple times a year for maybe a week at a time. They’re just getting into the groove of playing together when we pack our bags and jump on a plane again.
We love the idea of our kids growing up in a multi-generational context (with grandparents and great-uncles and other loving adults as a part of their support system.) We love the idea of having (free!) help every now and then, and having other parents around us who’ve been through it all before, of whom we can ask advice and commiserate. But while we love those ideas, you may have noticed that we don’t live anywhere near our families. For both James and I, our travels around the US and around the world have opened us to other facets and modes of being, some of which resonate with us so deeply that we cannot ignore them.
My first taste of this was a summer in college, when I did an archaeology dig. We were based in central Arizona, some forty miles outside of Winslow. We split our time between excavating a known site and surveying local canyons for new sites. I loved surveying best, when we’d drive to a remote location, climb up and down canyon walls for an hour to reach the day’s work area, then walk systematically in lines, staring at the ground in search of artifacts and mapping the territory.
After one afternoon of surveying, as we prepared for the final climb back to the Jeep, the team leader let me go ahead of the group. We usually stayed close together as a team, for safety, but sometimes on the final climb she would let me go. I loved those moments, when I could let my body take over and move at its own pace, feeling its way up the canyon and finding an internal rhythm. Legs burning, heart pumping, eyes scanning the terrain ahead, my whole body worked in concert. I had a sense one of those afternoons that I’d never had before: I belong here.
It was a sense of belonging I’d never known. In hindsight, I see that it wasn’t just that particular canyon: it was the American West. It was mountains. It was redwood groves. It was thick, temperate rain forests. It was alpine meadows. It was grand geography that sparked my soul in a way I had never felt; had never, in my Midwestern childhood, had even the slightest inkling of. But once I glimpsed it, once I felt the great stirring in my bones, it would stay with me forever. I didn’t know this then, but from that moment on I would never be able to live in the Midwest again. I could never ignore that stirring because some large part of me would be impoverished if I did.
And then there’s Stockholm, where we live now. We came here largely because of a job opportunity, and because we wanted to expose ourselves and our children to another culture and language. We’re certainly living in a new geography with drastically different seasons and light, with seemingly endless winter nights contrasted to seemingly endless summer days. Our living room windows open to an expansive view of the Baltic Sea with its constant movement of water, its infinite varieties of grey in winter, and sometimes, its profound stillness and silence.
This exploration of the larger world with its culture and geography, and nature’s lapping at our doorstep, define us. We wouldn’t be happy without them. But we certainly don’t begrudge anyone who made the other choice, who surrounded themselves with family and settled into the known world of their lifelong home and network of loved ones. I think these are two of the great tensions of the modern age, when mobility comes so easily. Ultimately there is no right or wrong choice, of course, there’s just what works for you as a person or family. Sometimes that changes—we know plenty of people who explored the world for a while before moving back home after having kids. Our needs change. Our priorities change.
But for us, now, we’re basking in the thin light of high latitudes as winter approaches. We’re weaving through forests ripe with berries and moss and adventure. We’re slipping our toes under the surface of the Baltic Sea, feeling the chill of the water and the ceaselessness of the waves. We are home.
Have you felt this tension between geography and family? Or maybe between professional opportunity and family? Have your priorities shifted over the years? I’d love to know.
All photos by me (except the one I’m hiding behind Leif in, that’s by James).