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Monthly Archives: July 2013

ImageOne of the harshest things my mother ever said to me, fully unintentionally, was that the feelings I had about wanting to go back to my life in Brazil were somewhat in vain. Not meaning to dismiss them while essentially doing so, she said that in spite of my expectations, the life I left behind no longer existed. Things would never be the same because they had changed for the people I left behind, as well as for me. I had lived different stories that started to shape the young girl I was becoming – international, full of weird experiences and a blasé attitude towards the unknown – and I would never again organically fit in to that ‘old life’ I idealized in my mind. The harsh reality that I would probably no longer belong anywhere sort of came crashing down on me. I was about twelve when this little gem of a truth bomb was dropped on me, mind you. It’s interesting to think about the role played by selective memory here. One single comment, most probably meant to ease my suffering about being a kid stuck between worlds, not only stayed with me after all this time but has long since transformed the way I look at change.  The permanent nature that the concept of ‘change’ has had for me since that comment, even when apparently temporary, is one of the main reasons that I mourn each good-bye. And god knows I’ve had plenty of those in my life.

The international school should have had a subtitle that read “Now that you’ve said good-bye to all of your friends and family back home, you can start to say good-bye to most people you like here too!” It was quite an extreme situation, looking back on it now. Anyone in your class, no matter how important or irrelevant they were to your daily life, could fuck off back to whatever country they came from or move to a new one again. Including you. You know that super cliché story line in American movies about a kid whose mom or dad is a little flaky and keeps packing up their stuff, moving from town to town and putting the kid in different schools? This was just like that, except the moving around was between countries and continents and the parents usually moved because of jobs and not crazy ex-boyfriends who beat them or drug deals gone wrong or whatever dramatic shit these movies end up being about. Not to mention that the new school was filled with other third culture kids who shared the same experience. Logic would suggest that the best way to tackle this little inconvenience was to never become too close with anyone. Logic, however, did not play a part in our society. Or it did, but its twisted version. We believed we had to make the best out of our time with anyone we liked. We spent outrageous amounts of time together with those we knew were leaving. This masochist little exercise made good-byes much harder and the transition into not having someone around tougher, but it was our way of coping. It was valid because we knew, from previous experience, that things would never be the same again. And this was our way of holding for dear life onto something that was slipping away. It was after almost two years of dreadful good-byes that I started to long for my previously simple life in Brazil – and my mom shattered that little fantasy forever.

As we speak, I’m one week away from leaving behind the life I have now for a temporary stay elsewhere. Moving to New York City feels kind of surreal. Even with several hiccups along the way, I can say that I managed to make this happen the way I wanted it to happen. And of course I’m still essentially homeless in the city, but hey… horrible apartment hunting experience is what being a New Yorker is all about, right? In all seriousness, with all of the madness of the last while, working to get this NYC thing going, juggling grad school with stress and ambition and general reality checks about being 26 and not having much of a clue how to achieve the goals I’ve set for myself in life, I have formed a life in Amsterdam that has a certain degree of logic to it. The familiarity I’ve created essentially out of thin air with the people in my life is something I treasure dearly. And while I know that true friendships and feelings in a more general sense don’t change with distance or time, routine certainly does. And I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t somewhat apprehensive about what changes this ‘big change’ will bring about. It’s perhaps more of a testament to how fragile I consider my level of social capital to be that I’m concerned about my place in ‘society’ – society here consisting of course of my little network – when all I should be thinking about is this amazing opportunity. And in a way, that is all that I can actually think about – the excitement is quite overwhelming nowadays. Except that I am seeing the eagerness of the people in my life to meet up more often than we usually care to as a clear sign of one of those international school good-byes. And this moving thing, albeit temporary, is starting to feel very real.

I’ve been reading this book called “How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed” by Slavenka Drakulić – kind of a long story and I don’t particularly want to go into the book’s topic right now because I’m still forming an opinion on it. At a certain point, however, the author quotes a friend of hers from East Berlin who tried to flee and was arrested, only to then be ‘purchased’ by West Berlin and once there meet and marry an American. Living in Iowa City, where her husband is from, she says: “Yes, I don’t like to live here […] but if I have learned anything from my life it’s that since I don’t belong anywhere, only movement matters. Traveling, being able to travel, this is why I escaped, and what I enjoy more than anything in the world is the fact that nobody is stopping me.” It got me thinking about how in spite of my dramatic outlook on life sometimes, I relate to her statement entirely. It is rather clear to see that this rooted existence I’ve been leading is to blame for my apprehensiveness about change, once again. And yet I can’t help but feel this distress about it doesn’t quite suit me.

As ‘grown-ups’, my sister and I have experienced a kind of role reversal with my parents, whereby they have continued to roam the world and we have somewhat stayed put. At least where residence is concerned. People usually travel to their parent’s homes and re-visit their past through boxes of photographs and documents of a previous life. In my family, it’s our parents that do that at our homes. My mother never took the bulk of our family pictures and I hold most of my and her ancient documents and sentimental-value-type possessions. My father never took his personal things either and my sister has been the guardian of his past for approximately eight years now. The times I’ve fantasized about leaving Holland for good were always followed by anxiety about what moving would mean. Not only to me. It would be like snipping the link my mother has to the Netherlands as well. It would be saying good-bye to a whole childhood and teenagehood and young adult life, with nowhere to visit once I’d be gone. It would be one of those intercontinental moves that my parents have done, shipping expensive furniture and paintings and documents. It would be kind of a massive deal which in many ways has served to put question marks in my head about simply fucking off to the next place.

The thing that struck me about the quote I used here is that in thinking about this idea of not belonging anywhere and enjoying the movement instead, I’ve come to realize that I’m much more afraid of becoming stagnated than I am of flying off somewhere new. And it’s not that I didn’t know this before, but I think my circumstances have really served to chain me down. Not entirely, obviously, but I have been carrying a now seemingly unnecessary burden regarding losing something which, quite frankly, I’m not entirely sure I have ever had. Not belonging here or anywhere else for that matter should be about mobility and not fear of losing whatever I have constructed in terms of social relations. I of all people should and do know how little distance matters and how enriching the experience of finding a new social world to fit into in a new place actually is for personal growth.

So while my mother was probably right and things may never be the same once you leave them behind, the real question is perhaps why the fuck you would ever want them to.

ImageAs occasions go, I find myself pondering whether there is a ‘special’ time any less exceptional than a birthday in a person’s life. On the verge of turning twenty-six, I find myself once again questioning all that has – and mostly, hasn’t – become of my life. Oh the birthday blues. Not that I have any right to feel this heavy burden of age in my fucking twenties or anything, but there’s nothing quite like the selfish act of wanting things to all of the sudden become artificially ‘special’ around you for a single day (which will come every single year until the day you fucking drop dead) to make you re-evaluate where you stand in life. Do you like your life as it is? Do you have an idea where it’s going and do you like that? Can you truly count on the people you chose to surround yourself with? Do you have major plans for the next 12 months until your incredibly unexceptional ‘special day’ rolls around again? Have you made the last 12 any better than the ones that came before it? Is your special day going to be special enough? And, most importantly, have you managed to set yourself up for that fine line between excitement and expectation, and anxiety and possible disappointment? Because let me tell you girl/boyfriend, if you haven’t, then you ain’t ready for that good ol’ birthday celebration.

Look, I never loved my birthday. It’s totally a taboo thing to admit because I’ve always felt this weird pressure to love the attention when all I feel is nervous at the thought of it rolling around each year. Self-assessments and general anxieties about worthiness of being alive aside, birthday celebrations make me more stressed than I usually care to admit. At the risk of coming across as a total bummer, the main reason I still bother celebrating it, as a general concept, is because I’ve tried the low-key non-celebration thing and the birthday blues were quadrupled at every inquiry of “Oh, you’re not doing anything for your birthday?” – add head tilt and awkward lip movement indicating pity. Like it’s somehow my fucking duty as a human to celebrate being alive on mother-fucking-schedule or it doesn’t count. Like my one guaranteed yearly achievement is having made it out of another year on Earth and now I’m forced to be grateful and forcefully accept half-hearted votes of ‘congratulations for not having died’ with a smile on my face and a beer in my hand.  Never mind all of the other days that I feel truly and organically blessed to be alive, no no. We celebrate happiness on July-fucking-fifteenth, people!

It’s safe to say I experience aging as a generally burdensome experience. As a child, I would usually spend the winter break month of July – southern hemisphere kid speaking here – at my grandparents’ house with my two cousins. My mom would usually call somewhere around 7 a.m. before heading for a day at the hospital where she worked, followed by my dad and six aunts and uncles, plus my other grandma. Some people would call whenever time allowed – sometimes so late in the day I had already had a good cry about it in the bathroom. Back when the telephone was a static chorded thing that sat on a little awkwardly small table with a chair up against the wall and a note pad and a pen next to it, getting birthday calls was about as boring an activity as it was important. And I hated it. My grandmother would work really hard at making my weirdly-timed birthday as nice as possible. Coconut-chocolate Bounty cake and strawberry white cake were usually baked simultaneously. She would invite around all of the neighborhood children my cousin and I skillfully avoided all winter so my birthday experience looked more like the real thing. Even as a child I recognized her efforts and tried to fake happiness. The amazing cakes helped. Double-cake and sugary drinks are a child’s beer and liquor and I sure made full delicious use of both coping techniques.

In stark contrast to my feelings of inadequacy and general existential ponderings surrounding my yearly ‘special day’, my sister has always loved her birthday. She’s always been the ‘birthday week’ type of person, whose birthday wishes were clear-cut and open to variation so long as they were awesome. The idea of getting presents and bringing together her many beloved friends is a yearly treat and not a yearly obligation filled with anxiety. From her perspective, the thought of someone important forgetting her birthday and still calling a day later has always been more of a testament to their love than a reason to cry in the bathroom mid-birthday. Even as a very little child, I was never as excited for my birthday as I knew my sister was for hers. As I get older, I can’t help but wonder whether I’m ever going to be able to find a way to make this birthday thing any less of a pain in my ass. Like, get to a place where I find a way to make it either organically and naturally enjoyable or somehow less important. It scares me to think that the same thing experienced by so many people as a wonderful yearly milestone is something that causes a state of near-depression for me. With all of the dedication and love of my dearest and closest who truly exert themselves to make things nice for me year after year, I still can’t help but feel slightly bummed out by the occasion.

Ironically, I love a good party. In fact, I enjoy planning and attending other people’s birthday parties more than most things in life. Not to mention that I actually truly enjoy hosting any other type of party and having dear friends around me any other time of the year. I just can’t help but feel like the pressure to prove happiness as well as to ensure people are entertained during the yearly me-fest in ‘celebration of my life’ is just a little too much to handle. It feels both super forced and a little self-obsessive to me. All of that while I’ve never felt that way about anyone else’s birthday other than my own.

I don’t know if New Year’s resolutions can be made on your birthday but, seeing as the big fuss made around it in fact appears to be welcoming a new year, I will say this: I vow to try to get the fuck over this feeling by the arrival of my late twenties – which by the way I just conveniently decided occurs at the age of twenty-seven – and to find a way to enjoy a birthday as much as any other day in life. The latter of course meaning that I should totally not have to beat myself up if I’m not in a particularly celebratory and joyous fucking mood. I also vow to stop panicking about my life choices every birthday, and using July as my yearly self-evaluation month more than any other month of the year. The significance of this date must somehow be overcome if I’m ever to have a truly stress-free birthday.

I figured birthday blues, much like the importance of birthday celebrations as a general concept, should be perceived as a social construct. A ritual which the social scientist in me is able to contextualize and, in that way, divorce from subjective feelings of inadequacy and pressures to perform. I have all of 366 days to figure out how to do that, but for now, in light of this little self-reflection, let’s see how tomorrow pans out.

I guess what I’m saying is: can I get a side of ‘good luck’ with my ‘happy birthday’?