From Surviving to Thriving

Today marks exactly three years since my four children and I stepped off a plane from Britain to join my husband and their father and embark on a new life in America.  Three years is a weird way-marker because in some ways it feels like we have not been here that long and in other ways it feels like we are way more established here than we would be after a mere three years.  We are inbetweeners.

Looking back, I think the first year of life here was very much about just surviving.  Back then I was so focused on getting through each day and each new challenge that I could not distance myself enough to have adequate perspective to recognise that we were just surviving.  I was just putting one foot in front of the other, sometimes stumbling, but mostly moving forwards.  However, so much has happened in these first three years that have helped us put down roots and start to feel settled here.  We bought a house – which was a massive deal for starting to “belong” – and everyone got settled into rhythms and routines, adjusted to new schools and work places, made new friends, developed new traditions to meld with the old ones we imported from Scotland, passed driving tests, and the children officially became American citizens.  Now I alone am the only Green Card holder, the only alien.

All of these things mean that we are well out of survival territory.  But nor are we quite thriving here yet or at least not in every area of life.  The transition takes far, far longer than one could ever anticipate.  It’s a long journey.  And there are road bumps.  And tolls.  And wrong turns that need to be corrected.  We are still moving towards the same fixed destination but it is just taking a bit longer than we expected.  So, to mix my metaphors, we are in this weird No Man’s Land between Surviving and Thriving.

Long time readers might recall my Lego nightmare and how it became a metaphor for our immigration experience.  I am happy to report that most of the Lego sets have now been rebuilt and are displayed on shelves and played with regularly.  However, there are a few sets left to build and there are some that are going to be extremely challenging to rebuild because it seems that some critical pieces are missing.  We will get there with the Lego and with the feeling of being settled enough to thrive.

Lemonade Stand

This Labour Day weekend, my four boys got to experience an American tradition: running a lemonade stand.  They suggested the idea and we supported it.  This was not something they would have experienced back home in Scotland so we were keen to let them do something that their born-and-bred American peers have probably done.

They made a gallon of lemonade from scratch, all taking turns at squeezing the juice from the lemons using the citrus reamer.  I think they liked how aggressive they were getting to be with a kitchen utensil.  I am given to understand now that actually the American tradition for lemonade stands is to use a powder mix as the base of the drink but never mind.  They had never made lemonade from scratch before so that just added to the joy of it all being a new experience.  I also baked chocolate brownies for them to sell.

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We left them to come up with the promotional posters and to decide on things like the price points.  We provided them with a float and showed them how to set out their income and expenditure accounts, a basic version of course, and then it was time for them to set up their stall.  A Saturday of a holiday weekend and with a storm predicted was always going to be slow going so I used the modern grapevine – Facebook – to send a message around the neighbourhood that they had set up stall and were selling freshly squeezed lemonade and brownies.  What was lovely was that so many neighbours stopped by to give them some support and encouragement, financial and verbal, but they also got some passing trade from cars driving through the neighbourhood and from our mail man.

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It was, however, still pretty slow going and so they learned something about the boredom involved in certain retail ventures, about handling a rush period alongside stretches of inactivity, and finally about the math of determining profit.  They actually made a surprising amount for a couple of hours of work and were quite pleased with their earnings.  I think they had hoped to rake in much more, however, so it will be interesting to see if they wish to repeat the exercise next summer and – if so – what they might do differently.  It was fun to see them experiencing something new about America, something that is a tradition for many American families, but I mostly enjoyed seeing them work cooperatively as a team and having to interact with other people without having we adults hovering as a crutch.  I like to think they have learned some life skills from the whole experience.  They also got to eat lots of leftover brownies.

Road Trip #9 – Sand Dunes

During our sojourn in Grand Haven, we took a trip further up the coastline of Lake Michigan in order to visit Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area.  This is a beautiful area of woodland that merges on the shore with spectacular sand dunes.

After a quick comfort stop at the worst composting toilet ever, we set off for a trek on the Nurnberg Trail.  This path led us through thick woodland which provided some welcome shade from the pulsing sun.  We had read that there were hog nosed snakes to be encountered on the trail but alas all we saw were squirrels and chipmunks who we encounter daily at home.

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Gradually the path between our feet turned from mulch and grit to sand until we found we were walking on roasting hot sand and emerged from the green shade of the trees onto the large, golden sand dunes.  The children scampered off excitedly and were soon scaling the wind sculpted peaks of the dunes.

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The spot was wonderfully secluded and peaceful.  It was like having our own private stretch of shore.  The sand was reflecting and radiating an immense amount of heat so the boys were soon swimming in the lake which was a wonderfully crisp blue.  We were experiencing the colours of the Caribbean in Michigan.  As I dipped my legs into the water for a paddle, I am sure I heard them hiss and sizzle.  It really was incredibly hot out that day.  Nevertheless, we could have idled on that beach for several hours just enjoying the quiet and solitude.

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After all that heat, a return to the shaded woods was most welcome and enjoyable.  However, after all of that relaxation, the trek back through the woods felt like it took an age, far longer than it had taken to walk to the shore.  That’s the theory of relativity in a nutshell then.  I found myself realising that for the first time in at least a very long time and perhaps in my life I had actually taken pleasure in sitting on a sandy beach.  ‘Twas a miracle.

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Road Trip #1 – Pittsburgh

This Summer’s vacation was a road trip across eight states plus the District of Columbia.  Mr Pict and I have undertaken several North American road trips before but this was our first with the boys.  Six people in eight states (six of them new to the kids and me) across fifteen days.  It was bound to be an adventure.

We set off from the Philly suburbs on the morning of 16 July and drove straight through to Pittsburgh – our first pit stop, pun intended, of the trip.  I had never been to Pittsburgh before and was keen to see something of the city.  We, therefore, opted not to explore any museums but actually experience the place through the soles of our feet.  This turned out to be achingly true.

We started our explorations at Point State Park where three rivers – the Allegheny, the Monongahela and the Ohio – all meet.  This geography made it an important area in times past, with the French and the British trying to control it in order to be in charge of passage and trade through the area.  Its strategic significance is demonstrated by the fact that the site has the remains of two forts, the French Fort Duquesne and the British Fort Pitt.  Not much that is discernible remains of either fort but we were able to pop into a blockhouse of Fort Pitt.  The cramped space had been turned into a museum showcasing some archaeological finds from the fort.  I tried to engage the kids in relics from various conflicts with the local Native American population but the kids were most taken with fragments of an old root beer bottle.

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The boys were less interested in the history of the area and were more drawn towards the cooling water of the impressive fountain.  The fountain shoots water 150 feet into the air, apparently drawing the water up from a well of groundwater in the rock below.  We enjoyed people watching and taking in the scenery while the kids dipped their feet in the fountain pool.

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Rested and refreshed, we walked across a yellow Fort Pitt bridge that circled us around to the Duquesne Incline.  Pittsburgh has a very steep hilly section that can be accessed via a couple of these Inclines – what I was referring to as a funicular before I remembered what they were called in Pennsylvania.  Essentially it is a 5 foot gauge railway track ascending at a 30 degree angle.  The Dequesne Incline was built in 1877 (and looks and feels every bit of it!) and rises 400 feet in height on 800 feet of track.  In its industrial heyday, the city apparently had several of these Inclines operating but now only the Duquesne and Monongahela remain.  As well as being used by the residents who live in the hilly neighbourhood, the Incline is a major tourist attraction.  This was evidenced by the length of the queue we joined.

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The queue moved at a steady pace but I did not enjoy the experience for one bit.  For some reason, the corridor above the road set my fear of heights into intense overdrive.  My nerves were utterly shredded by the time we were at the head of the queue and safely inside the terminus building.  We knew we needed to pay for our journey with cash and I had researched the ticket prices online.  Unfortunately, the prices quoted on the website were incorrect which was very aggravating since it transpired we were short on cash.  We opted, therefore, to pay for a one way journey on the basis that we would withdraw more cash from an ATM at the top.  We boarded the rickety old wooden car and rattled our way up the worryingly mouldering track that looked like it could crumble to mush imminently.

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Upon arriving at the summit, however, we learned that the ATM at the viewing platform was out of order.  Uh oh.  We did not have enough cash to get all six of us back down the Incline.  We decided to have a wander of the neighbourhood to check it out, take in the view, and seek out a source of cash.  The latter mission was entirely thwarted.  The view, however, was pretty spectacular.  From that steep vantage point we could really appreciate the geography of the area and the way it nestled around the confluence of those three rivers.  We also checked out a sculpture depicting George Washington and Seneca leader Guyasutu entitled ‘Points of View’.

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Then it was time to problem-solve our stupid cash-strapped difficulty.  We had three options: wander further afield in search of an ATM, send one parent back down the Incline to fetch the car and collect the others, or walk back down the hill.  We chose the last option thinking it would provide us with a further opportunity to see more of the city.  This it most certainly did and I must state that the architecture of Pittsburgh is fascinatingly eclectic.  I quite enjoyed looking at all of the styles and the way that different architects had solved the problem of  sloping ground.  Our children, however, could not be convinced that this study of architecture and topography was worth the time and energy it took to ascend the hill.  The path was long and twisting and the air was stiflingly muggy.  Moods were descending into grumbles and grouches.

When we got to the bottom and found a petrol station, we fell on its drink filled refrigerators like they were manna in the wilderness.  Thirsts slaked but with aching feet and kids still whinging, we returned to our starting point via the Smithfield Street Bridge. Then it was on to that night’s hotel and an invigorating swim in its pool.

Lego as a Metaphor for Immigration

In the Summer of 2013, when we knew for sure that we were going to be emigrating from Scotland to the US, I had to go through the process of selling, donating and ditching loads of our possessions and packing up what we were keeping in order to prepare it to be shipped across the Atlantic.  One of the more tedious jobs I did was to spend an entire day packing up my sons’ very many Lego sets.  I took each set in turn, broke it down into individual bricks and pieces, placed those bricks into ziplock bags, and labelled each bag according to the information on the building instruction manuals.  It was the perfect job for a control freak mother like me but goodness it was laborious and my thumbs were throbbing by the end of the day.  Still, all the effort was worth it as it meant all those Lego sets could be safely transported across the ocean, taking up as little space as possible, and could be easily rebuilt set by set once we were settled in Pennsylvania.

That was the plan for the Lego.  It was also the plan for us.

We were packing up our lives in Scotland, breaking things down into fragments, compartmentalising, putting things in order, imposing a system on the chaos.  I assumed there would be a difficult transition period, a settling in phase full of stress and glitches and the odd set back, a need to feel our way through the jumble just like all those loose bricks jumbled in their labelled bags.  But we would be rebuilding a new life on another shore, piecing it all back together again in no time at all.  Lickety split.  Tickety boo.

That’s not how it turned out with our transition period.  It’s not how it happened with the Lego.

Not long after our shipping container finally arrived, a visiting child took it upon himself to rummage around in all the plastic storage crates full of toys.  One such crate contained all of the ziploc bags of Lego.  The child opened up every single one of those ziploc bags, about 50 in total, and emptied them all out onto the floor.  My kids were incandescent.  I felt bereft.  And stressed.  And overwhelmed.  A full day’s worth of work, my attempts to impose order on the chaos, to make rebuilding easy and fun, were all completely and utterly undermined.  All my hopes for an easy rebuilding project were dashed.  I looked at that Lego all over the floor, thousands of bricks in a tangle of mess, and I felt deflated.

Settling in and establishing our lives in a new country did not go to plan either.  There were big things I expected to be much more trying but which were pleasingly easier than anticipated; however, there were other things that proved much more difficult to navigate, things we did not anticipate.  We had been focusing so much on the challenges of living in a new country that we overlooked the challenges born of changes to our family dynamic, the schedule and shape of our everyday lives.

That transition period has still not concluded over two years into life in America.  We are really only starting to come to grips with everything immigration has involved now.  I had to be gentle with myself, accept that things were going to be rocky for a while, that we would stumble a bit, and give myself permission to feel frustrated and annoyed and stressed and anxious.  I had to give myself the gift of more time.

Likewise, I left those Lego sets for a while.  My kids played with the few we had already built and the rest of the bricks languished in a huge storage crate waiting for me to feel ready to tackle it.  It was too stressful to contemplate rebuilding from that scale of chaos.  I had to gift myself more time.  A few months ago, I decided to tackle the issue.  I decided that I would organise the bricks differently, there being no possible way to recreate my first approach.  I made up a bag of red bricks, a bag of blue bricks,a bag of barrel shaped pieces, a bags of wheels ….It took me a couple of days but gradually order was imposed on the chaos.  It still takes us a lot longer to rebuild a set since we have to look at each instruction and rake through the bags to find the right piece but at least now we are only looking in the bag of small grey bricks to find the required small brick rather than raking through the entire huge tub, a lego needle in a haystack.  The new approach is working.  We are rebuilding the Lego sets again.  Progress is being made.

I had to change my expectations, develop a new approach to problems, and accept that it is going to be a gradual and slow process.  For Lego.  For immigration.

 

Washington Crossing

This weekend we went to Washington Crossing, both a town in PA and a state park straddling both Pennsylvania and New Jersey on the banks of the Delaware River.  My 8 year old had to visit a local historic site in order to earn some sort of badge and the pack leader suggested Washington Crossing.  Every year, the folks of the area stage a reenactment of General George Washington’s Christmas Day crossing of the Delaware River in 1776.  Happily they don’t just stage the reenactment on Christmas Day but also on an earlier weekend because we could not have sold a Christmas Day excursion to walk some men in fancy dress row some boats to the kids.  Want to know how stoked the boys were to be attending this event?  Yup.  Correct.  Not.  At.  All.

Honestly, it was a hard sell.  On a list of a hundred trips my kids might be enthused about, standing on the banks of a river watching some historic reenactors go to and fro does not feature.  Not remotely.  In fact, it might feature on a list of things my kids will rebel against.  Which was kind of apt given it was all about a revolution.  It was also hard for me to whip them up into some sort of interest because, quite frankly, the Revolutionary War doesn’t especially engage me either.  Finally I segued from playing Devil’s Advocate with my failing and flailing attempts at persuasion and just went with threats of dire punishment to get them into the car and get the trip underway.

Washington Crossing was absolutely thronging when we arrived.  Finding parking proved to be quite a challenge.  Clearly whole vast herds of other parents had no difficulty enthusing their children about the event.  The best views were to be had from a VIP area with a marquee and ticketed entrance.  There was no way I was going to hand over cash just to hear my kids whine and gripe so we found a spot further along the bank and settled in there.  And by “settled” I mean that Mr Pict and I had to stay on hyper alert as our children picked up large sticks with which to have lightsaber fights, jumped off rocks down to the shore, gave other people palpitations as they scuttered down steep slopes at high speed, hurtling towards the water, and tried to escape.  Oh what fun.

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Finally it was time to watch the reenactment.  I then became utterly confused because the row boats pushed out from the Pennsylvania shoreline and crossed to New Jersey.  Somewhere in the dusty shelves of my memory, I thought that Washington had crossed the other way.  So, to be clear, I had dragged four unwilling and rebellious children on a trip to see a historic event reenacted when I had almost zero knowledge of the event.  This was going great.  So it transpired that what happened was that George Washington conducted a surprise maneouvre  whereby he crossed the river on Christmas night in order to attack the Hessian troops in Trenton.  They then crossed back to Pennsylvania with prisoners and some useful things they had purloined.  Washington’s troops would later cross again in order to defeat Cornwallis’ troops at Trenton.  This whole episode is the subject of Leutze’s famous painting.  So we watched the reenactors cross back and forth in the Durham boats, had our ears cleared and our ribs rattled by the boom of canon, and smelled the rotten egg of the smoke as it wafted thickly in our direction.

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It ended and the crowds clapped and cheered.  My boys yippeed because they could finally depart.  Honestly, it was not the most exciting trip I have ever taken them on but, as I explained to them, it could have been worse: I could have taken them to the Christmas Day reenactment after all.  I realised, however, that my lack of engagement and enjoyment was down to my very limited knowledge about the War of Independence.  Given that we live in an area that is so connected to, so immersed in the history and events of that era, I really must make an effort to learn more.  I think, therefore, that we may well return to Washington Crossing at some stage in order to visit the buildings and learn a bit more about the events we saw being depicted, see replicas of the boats up close, that sort of thing.  Of course, persuading my kids to return might be a whole other thing.

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Holiday Traditions

One week into December and our holiday traditions are underway.  Despite not being Christians, we celebrate a secular version of Christmas as both Mr Pict and I were brought up with Christmas and wanted to keep those traditions going when we had kids of our own.  Of course, some of the traditions we had back in Britain have had to be mothballed since we emigrated to America.  Pantomimes, for instance, do happen here but are far too expensive for us to attend so no more pantomimes for us for the time being.  We have, however, started new traditions since moving here.  It seems those are already ingrained since the kids were determined that we were going to do the exact same things this year that we have done before.

First among these was the Holiday Light Show at Shady Brook Farm.  We first went in 2013 for our first American Christmas and then again last year.  I offered a suggestion that we do something different this year, another light show even, but the kids shot my suggestions down.  They want repetition and tradition.  So off to Shady Brook Farm we went.  I think the kids like that we drive through all the illuminations, cosy in the car, not having to wander around in the chill night.  They had fun seeing old favourites among the lights and spotting some new additions.  Then we parked up and got out to see the tree and buy some kettle corn and visit the farm shop.  The place was jam packed with people, however, so we didn’t stay too long.

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December also means the return of advent traditions to help the kids count down to Christmas Day.  We have a small wooden chest full of drawers that gets open every day plus a Playmobil advent calendar, both traditions we have had since the kids were tiny wee, but now we also have Noel, our Elf on the Shelf.  Now there is a tradition I regret starting.  We don’t do the whole “magical” bit.  The kids know fine well it is me who moves the Elf each night and they know that the Elf is not reporting back to Santa.  For them, finding Noel each morning is just a fun wee treasure hunt.  They look forward to seeing what Elf s up to, either some kind of antics or else a message for them regarding a festive activity.  All harmless fun except that I have to remember to move the ruddy Elf every evening.  Already, a mere week in, I have had to get back out of bed in order to go and move him somewhere, having been jolted out of the land of Nod by the sudden remembrance that Noel is exactly where he was the 24 hours before.  I am also struggling to be very creative with him.  Some people do these amazingly elaborate set ups with their Elves.  Not me.  I just hide Noel somewhere.  If I do a set up, it’s usually something that makes the kids chuckle rather than create magic.  Noel pooped chocolate into a jar the other day.  On the first day, he was found under the Christmas tree with a bottle of liqueur.  That was just as well since I failed to move him that night and I had the excuse of an Elf hangover for why he hadn’t moved.

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One day, Noel the Elf was found with a gingerbread house ready to be decorated.  I once baked a gingerbread house from scratch but I had a conniption trying to get the walls to stick together with icing and it ended up looking like a total hovel.  I discovered prefabricated gingerbread houses when we emigrated and, therefore, they can become part of our family’s holiday traditions without me losing the plot.  The three younger boys had a lot of sticky fun decorating the house and eating the surplus construction supplies.

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We decorated the house for Christmas right after Thanksgiving.  Mr Pict would rather wait until later into December but all the hassle involved in decorating makes me want to have it last for a good few weeks, more return for my investment.  I don’t go overboard.  We don’t decorate the exterior of the house.  Yet.  Mr Pict wants to get stuff for outside but I don’t know that I could deal with the additional hassle.  Bah humbug.  Sorting out the twinkly lights for the Christmas tree was quite enough stress, thanks very much.  It was worth it though: the formal living room has a lovely glow to it now.

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The sweetest thing, however, is that my 6 and 8 year old boys made their own advent calendar.  Playing outside in the garden one evening, they gathered up 12 rocks and decorated them with a sharpie in order to depict the Twelve Days of Christmas.  They then brought it indoors and arranged it on the kitchen floor as a surprise.  Which it was.  A delightful surprise.  I do love it when my kids are creative, experience a spark of inspiration.  We now have the rocks arranged on the windowsill.  Just to add to the cuteness, my youngest keeps singing that the third day is “three henchmen”.  I am now changing the lyrics in our household.  That’s another new holiday tradition.

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