Most of my posts over the last six months have been about how overwhelming and difficult our international move was. (Exhibit A, Exhibit B, Exhibit C.) But now that we’ve been here for nearly three months and finally received our stuff (two-and-a-half months after it left Sweden!), it’s starting to feel like the move is over. Sure, we haven’t unpacked about half of our boxes and we still don’t have all the furniture we need, but the feeling of being in transition has passed. We’re here.
Now that we’re here, I feel ready to share some reflections on my repatriation process. Read on if you’re curious.
I had expected the emotional process of repatriating to be incredibly difficult. I anticipated walking around in a funk, muttering under my breath about how uncivilized and unsophisticated American culture is, standing helplessly in the garish cereal aisle, and not knowing how to manage playground interactions with both kids and parents. However, I was shocked at how easy it was to slip back into American life—and not just easy, but pleasing. No doubt a huge part of this was landing in a fantastic neighborhood with generous neighbors, but also there’s something about American friendliness that’s so welcoming and comfortable. It was easy to strike up a conversation anywhere we went, and people were genuinely interested in hanging out and helping us get settled in. There was no shortage of offers to play or share a meal. In some ways, it feels like we are relaxing and getting comfortable for the first time in years.
A huge part of the ease of slipping back into life in America, too, was the reality of living moment-to-moment when you have children. I didn’t have time or energy to think much about who and what we’d left behind. Reminiscing was a luxury I didn’t have: we were all together, every day, finding our way around and getting settled. The kids needed meals and snacks and naps and endless attention, which in its way distracted me from thinking about Sweden. The stress factor contributed to this moment-by-moment quality, too: when I was so overwhelmed with everything that had to be done, from setting up a household to taking care of the kids, they only way to proceed was to do one single thing at a time. Often this meant simply reacting to the moment rather than acting skillfully or thoughtfully. But, whether it came from stress or just the Zen of parenting ;-), living in the moment kept me from dwelling too hard on what we’ve left behind.
Also, we were putting together a household: we had to buy a car, furniture, appliances, food stocks, etc. There was just so much to do that I had no opportunity to think about Sweden.
In hindsight, I see that some of that may have been purposeful, too, that maybe I was consciously avoiding thinking about it; a couple weeks ago I started reaching out to old friends in Sweden via iMessage and Instagram, looking at pictures of the people and places we loved, and it was hard. I found a box of gifts our beloved neighbors had given us the day we left, to be opened on our arrival in the US. The presents were absolutely perfect and absolutely Swedish, and they made me ache for Sweden and the life we lived there. I realized that I’d been forcefully holding back memories of friends and places because it was just too painful to think of them. For a few days I just let myself feel that sorrow, and slowly opened myself up to the complicated feelings and joyful memories of our previous life.
I do desperately miss hearing and speaking a foreign language. I miss seeing the letter Å. I miss listening to Sveriges Radio P1 and reading labels at the grocery store. I miss the sound of our neighbors’ voices talking to our children. The boys have almost completely lost their Swedish: they don’t speak a word of it now. I still speak to them in Swedish every day and read to them in Swedish almost every night, and they seem to understand, but they’ve lost it as a functional language that they can speak. I love learning languages, and feel almost as if a part of me is withering away by not being immersed in one.
Of course, it helps that it’s now winter in Sweden, so we don’t feel like we’re missing all that much. 😉
All of this is to say that we are mostly settled. The boys are happy(ish) in their new routine, and Leif’s tantrums have mostly subsided. August is thriving in his Montessori school. James is thrilled with his new work environment, thriving professionally in ways that he hasn’t in years. I’m still wondering which end is up, but I sense that’s just who I am and how I go through life. I’ve been debating some career options, and grad school, and all that might come next, as I wrote about before, though now with a little—or a lot—less melancholy.
So in our repatriation process, mostly I’ve just been shocked about how easy it’s been to slip into another stage of life. It’s almost as though we were never in Sweden, that our whole previous life was some fantastic dream. As a testament to that, and in a move I’ll probably regret later (talk about vulnerability!), I’m going to share something I wrote years ago, just after another major life change.
How fast and seamlessly life changes. We sit where we are now, as though this has always been – and yet we are able to remember another iteration of this life, when not just our landscape but our horizon was different; when not just our waking but our dreams were different; when life was just as real as it is now, and yet fundamentally other.
Who are we when we are here? Who were we when we were there? And what is the difference between here and there, anyway? Is it geography? Is it time? Is it growth? Is it a dramatic suspension of disbelief or deus ex machina?
One day your backyard is a tree and another it is a U-Haul parking lot – or was it the other way around? – and which of the two is truer? And what happened to the valley with grape vines?
A bus drives by: what if we were on that bus instead of in here? The doorway across the courtyard squeaks to a shut: what if that were your doorway instead of the one with #15 screwed to it? Who would you be then? Would you still be you?
Even when we are sure and settled, we are hopelessly adrift in life’s mad randomness: 9/11 happens, or your stepfather gets leukemia, or Amos Lee walks in through the back door: and what was even now slants, and what was up is now down, and what you avowed is now folly.
There is no stopping this. There is no stopping life from teaching us the things we don’t yet know how to learn. There is no stopping the Ponderosa pines from smelling like vanilla; there is no stopping the Coulter pines from dropping baby-weighted pinecones in our path; there is no stopping the pediatrician from breaking our hearts and there is no stopping the mighty come-call from ripping the world open.
It is amazing how light and airy our bodies are, and yet how heavy our souls. I don’t know which keeps the other on earth some days: and I don’t know which transports me to heaven. I once knew another life; I once knew a dozen other lives. And yet I sit here, as though this has always been and life has always known singularity and everything is exactly as it is supposed to be. Can you imagine that?: everything is exactly as it is supposed to be.
All pictures by me.