Keeping It Real

At least once every couple of weeks two things happen: someone will comment about what a wonder woman or inspiration I am and I will fail spectacularly at some aspect of life.  Clearly there is a disparity – sometimes of chasm proportions – between people’s perceptions of me and my reality.

I absolutely do not set out to convince people that I am some sort of incredible individual who has all of her ducks in neat and pretty serried rows.  Each and every time someone compliments me, I am flabbergasted and don’t really know how to respond because it is unexpected.  And also because I have never really learned how to graciously accept a compliment.  Anyway, I am not deliberately presenting a facade to the world or hiding my shortcomings from public view but somehow, nevertheless, people have this perception of me that is far removed from the reality.

When I first started blogging (over four years ago!), I made a promise to myself that I would “keep it real” on this blog.  My original intention had been to maintain the blog as a sort of diary of my early experiences of life in a new country so it would have totally undermined the purpose had I finessed the truth.  Obviously I now maintain my blog(s) for other reasons but I still hold to that aim of presenting the reality of what my experiences are, sometimes red in tooth and claw.  Clearly, I don’t write about the mundane reality of my everyday life.  My readers don’t need to know that my sock orphanage, where all the unaccompanied single socks accumulate, is currently a mountainous stockpile.  Nor do they need to know that I spend every single weekday morning yelling the same script at my children who must surely be bored by now of my voice loudly hectoring them to put on shoes and coats and pick up backpacks and lunch bags.  I yell so loudly that I understood entirely why my new neighbours, when we first moved into our house, knew the name of my youngest son without the need for introductions.

People seem to perceive me as being super-organised, efficient, a fantastic time-keeper, with an ability to juggle multiple and varied draws on my free time while somehow, miraculously, still having time for art and other hobbies.  Many of those things used to be true of me.  Before I had kids, I was anal retentive with my organisation and punctuality.  I was notorious for my To Do spreadsheets and my colour-coded everything.  However, as my life became more complex, I had to choose between maintaining that level of efficiency or my sanity .  These days I am still a massive control freak but one who regularly freaks out amid the chaos I have little to no control over.

The truth is that I am perpetually frazzled, am prone to yelling because I am apparently hard-wired to associate assertiveness with volume, and frequently over-scheduled.  I experience regular spikes of anxiety because of running late or barely making it on time when punctuality is one of my neuroses.  I juggle many balls and fail to keep them all in the air.  Frequently I drop the ones that can safely bounce; regularly I drop the ones that smash and need cleaning up; and ever so often I just drop all the balls everywhere.

And the truth about how I find time for my hobbies, especially art, isn’t that I am massively efficient with my time or am spectacularly whizzy at getting things done – though I do work fast.  The truth is that I make time for those things by sacrificing other things ranging from dusting to TV viewing to sleep.  I confess I sacrifice dusting a lot.  Furthermore, there are times when my scheduling of “me time” goes spectacularly wrong – such as times when we end up having the most random, cobbled together dinners because I forgot to prep a key ingredient in advance.

I am often in the midst of a scheduling mess.  Back in November, I had a day where I had to be in three places at once.  I am used to problem solving being in two places at once but three was just too much.  It was head-imploding crazy.  And then my oldest son asked if he could be dropped off at the cinema as if it was no big deal to add in being in a fourth place at once.  Clearly my kids think I have super powers too.

Then there was the day when I was already up against it at the thought of having to get my two youngest sons to the orthodontist for 3.30 only to receive a phone call asking where we were since the first appointment was actually 1.30.  This necessitated me dropping everything – literally since I was doing laundry at the time –  quickly organising myself while calling the school secretary to ask for the boys to be whipped out of their classrooms and ready and waiting for me at reception, and driving rapidly to the school to pick them up, and then to the orthodontists’ office.

And, in another orthodontist related example, there was the recent day when my youngest son finished getting his braces fitted at 3pm only to have snapped them by 4pm simply by fidgeting with the wires.  Coincidentally, he snapped them at precisely the minute that the orthodontist is supposed to close up shop for the weekend.  We quickly dashed back to the office in the hopes they had not totally packed up and gone home, which luckily they had not.  I cannot tell a lie – yelling was involved.

Yes, as previously stated, I am a yeller.  I yell a lot.  My kids turn it into white noise so I don’t know why I do it.  Cathartic primal screaming maybe.  When Pennsylvania experienced an earthquake on 30 November, for a fraction of a second I thought it may have been caused by my frustrated rage at supervising hideous mathematics homework.

So, yeah, I am not some wonder woman or role model of togetherness.  I will keep accepting praise and compliments when they are given but – for the sake of keeping it real – please know that my successes are absolutely balanced out by my failures.


Cupboard Love and the Cooking Challenge

Among the goals I set for myself in January was one regarding cooking.  I set myself the challenge to cook at least one new recipe per week.  I was tired of cooking the same couple of dozen meals over and over just to try and appease my kids and quell the meal time whines and rebellions.  I operate an “eat it or starve” policy and tell my kids that I am no short order chef prepared to cook to their requests.  But regardless the griping and groaning can become quite grating.  After school hours are frenetic and frazzling as I oversee four kids doing homework while making the evening meal so to place said meal in front of kids and find a proportion of them protesting it is pretty dispiriting.  As such, I had fallen into the trap of not challenging them too much with food.  I was cooking from a repertoire of meals that satisfied the majority, knowing not all four would be satisfied each meal time.  I enjoy cooking.  I enjoy eating even more.  I wanted more variety.  The solution to my stuck-in-a-rut boredom was the challenge.

So far, with the exception of a couple of far too busy weeks, I have fulfilled the challenge.  Most weeks I have tried and tested two new recipes.  I pick friend’s brains, flick through recipe books, pin interesting looking options on Pinterest and pluck two possibilities (three if I have time to bake something sweet) to try out on my pack of little taste testers.

I am not going to lie about my rate of success.  Many of my attempts have bombed with the kids.  Meals Mr Pict and I have found delicious, the kids have complained about.  There have been a few melodramatic gagging performances and a smattering of going to bed hungry but mainly just moaning.  If more than 50% of the kids declare the meal to be horrid then those meals do not make it into my recipe file.  I dust myself off and try a different recipe the following week.  There have also been recipes I have tried that even I found too mediocre to be palatable.  Some I have adapted to give them a stronger flavour punch and others have just been deleted from my memory.  However, there have been enough comments along the lines of “You can make this again” to encourage me to keep trying and month on month my recipe file is getting chunkier.  A few recipes – and not just the sweet ones – have become family favourites.

A side benefit is that the kids have become a little more sensitive to my feelings when responding to the new recipes.  Dialogue about the success and failings of new recipes, suggestions as to how they might be tweaked to be improved, discussion as to precisely what makes them enjoy or reject a meal, has led to less yelps of “Why are you making us eat food this gross?” to the much more respectful and tolerable “I don’t think you should make this again” and “I would eat this again if it had more spice” and such like.  Meal times, as a result, are generally becoming gradually more pleasant affairs.  I still have to say “eat it or starve” too much for my liking but I accept it is all a process.  I will keep ploughing onwards with my recipe testing challenge.

A New Member of the Pict Family

My kids have been asking for a pet for the majority of years they have been on the planet.  Back home in Scotland, we did have pet cockroaches for a while.  Seven Madagascan Hissing Cockroaches.  They were fascinating creatures and pretty easy to look after but they did not quell the boys’ desire for a more cuddly pet.  The youngest two have been campaigning for a dog for a few years now.  Specifically they want a pug named Russell.  For several reasons, that was not going to happen.  However, Mr Pict and I decided that perhaps we would be willing to compromise with another type of pet.  We hoped that a pet might help the boys settle further into life here, make it feel more like home.  Mr Pict and I had had a cat before we became parents so we felt comfortable with the idea of having a cat.  We broke the news to the kids and they were ecstatic.

We decided to adopt a rescue cat so set about visiting rescue places to find the perfect cat for us.  We knew we wanted a young cat but one who was no longer a kitten and it also had to be a cat who was good around kids and tolerated lots of noise and hectic activity.  We also wanted a cat who was good with other cats since our aim is to have two so that they are buddies for each other when we are away for the day.  On Saturday, we went along to an adoption event run by the local animal control department.  We fell in love with a fluffy grey two year old cat named Satchi.  He had a rear leg amputated a week ago as he was picked up off the streets with a badly broken leg.  When we spent time with him, he was very affectionate and very tolerant of being in a confined space with four kids and two adults.  We decided he had to come home with us.

The boys are over the moon and are loving having a pet to snuggle and take care of.  Satchi is adjusting well to the Pict family home and is pretty mobile already on his three legs.  I have never had a house cat before (although I have cared for many cats before, they have all been allowed to spend time outdoors) so learning how to tweak the care regime is interesting.  Already he feels like part of the family.



Be less of a line and more of a scribble

Being an immigrant is challenging psychologically as well as practically, logistically, legally and in all those everyday ways.  It is especially challenging for someone like me: a complete control freak who craves stability and security.

The decision to move here was a leap of faith and – as an atheist – I mean a leap of faith in ourselves to have arrived at the right decision, to have conducted adequate research, to have the capabilities and strengths to seize and make the most of the new opportunities we were creating for ourselves.  I don’t like unknowns, however, so this leap of faith was also a leap in the dark.  My husband is ceaselessly chipper and bouyant and glass-half-full so largely my leap of faith involved just trusting in his judgement and allowing myself to be carried along by his positivity.  I, of course, did all the control freak stuff: endless hours spent on the internet researching things to the nth degree.  And I do mean the nth degree: I even researched whether Americans use rotary clothes lines because the ability to line dry clothes would help our electricity consumption.  Seriously.  I am a planner and Mr Pict is a doer.  That’s what makes us a successful couple: we are compatible where it matters and contrast and complement each other where it matters too.

I live my life in lists.  I generate dozens of them each week.  Shopping lists organised according to different sections of the supermarket, To Do lists, wish lists of books, lists of movies I want to see, even lists written on my hand in case I forget the most urgent items from all my other lists.  I am a planner.  I need to have a plan.  I need to know what I am doing, where I am going, how things are going to work.  Voyages into the unknown are inherently not my thing.  For every vacation we take, I create a spreadsheet of all the things we might possibly do in that area with columns for opening times and prices and directions.  For a vacation in Rome, I even created a colour-coded map that linked to a colour-coded and indexed spreadsheet.  That is me accepting different possibilities and not being too controlled because I accept it is not an itinerary but a list of options.  That’s as into the unknown as I usually voyage.

Yet here I am in a country I have never lived in before, operating in systems I have no experience of, driving on the other side of the road, having to translate myself into different vocabulary, navigating a different education system with my kids …. Every day is about an encounter with the unfamiliar and the unknown.  For a control freak, that is an assault on the psyche.

Furthermore, a lot of our immediate future is not clearly mapped out and that makes me hyperventilate if I dwell on it to much.  We cannot buy a house here until our house in Scotland sells and releases our equity so we don’t even know where we will be living a year hence.  We have a house here but it is not our home.  That then leads us to scour our budget to determine the impact of paying rent and mortgage for longer than anticipated.  And what if we cannot find a house within the catchment area of the boys’ school?  Or even an affordable house that can accommodate us all within the school district?  That degree of uncertainty transforms a control freak into a wing-nut with ease, especially a glass-half-empty control freak like me.

I recognise that for the sake of my sanity I have to relinquish control.  I have to accept that we did all of that research and all of that debating and weighing up the pros and cons and arrived at the decision to emigrate with good reason and that those reasons are still good.   All of the things on the pros list still hold true.  I have to, therefore, learn to just go with the flow during this turbulent transitional period and trust that all the hurdles will be overcome, all the niggles smoothed over and our leap of faith will be justified and vindicated.  Going with the flow.  That’s pretty much an alien concept to me.  I have to stop trying to impose control on things I have little or not control over.  I have to stop trying to structure things that are too undetermined to be lassoed into any sort of organisation.  I need to learn to relax into life and let it happen to me.

So while I’ve been pondering this aspect of my psyche, I have also been trying to have another crack at art journaling.  The art I normally produce expresses me in so far as it is about the things I enjoy, the things that interest me but it is not candid or revealing and is not “about me” so that element of art journaling is something I am having to come to terms with.  However, my style of art is also very graphic and controlled.  I work up sketches and then go on to produce a completed work with intention as to what the outcome will be.  Yes, in my art work I am also a complete and utter control freak.  I do not go with the flow in my art work either.  Trying a bit of this and a bit of that and seeing where it takes me is not how I work.  Because my style is graphic and cartoonish, even at the sketching stage I am quite rigid.  The loosest I ever get is with very short life drawings.  But art journaling is about not having an intention or having a vision of the completed page before you commence working on it.  It’s about just letting the art work flow from you as you produce it.  That presents a major challenge to a control freak like me and, as such, I am finding it to be a struggle.

So earlier today I looked at a blank page in my art journal with all of these thoughts in mind and this is what I created:



It’s something to aim for, a reminder to try and just go with the flow a bit more, rely on my instincts in life and in my creativity rather than relying on my intellect and knowledge.  I think it is a good “note to self”.  But what does the control freak in me do?  Well if you look closely you will see that I erased not once but twice my initial scribble patterns because I did not like the shapes they created on the page.  So much for going with the flow, eh?  And in a moment of distraction I inserted a comma where there should not be one.  As someone as anal retentive about punctuation as I am, that almost had me tearing out the page and shoving it in the recycling bin.  The only thing that stopped me was that the reverse of the page has a collage of New York city on it.  But that comma scoffs at me for my moment of distraction, for my loss of control, and goodness it annoys me.  But I need to go with the flow in that regard too: I need to accept that along the way in experiencing anything new there will be mistakes.  Yes, even I will make mistakes.  I cannot control everything.

I need to be less of a control freak.  Let’s see how that goes, shall we?

Who am I and why am I here?

The title is not an indication that this first post (or blog indeed) will be full of existential angst.  Quite literally I thought I ought to explain who I am and why I am here.

So the title of my blog is “A Pict in PA”.  The latter part is easy to explain: I live in Pennsylvania – PA for short.  I have done for precisely a week.  Indeed, I have lived in America for precisely one week.  That segues me into the Pict part which is a little tricker to explain.  Partly I opted for Pict because I love alliteration.  I actually alliterate without thinking about it because it is a compulsive thing for me.  I am, however, from Fife in Scotland – the Pictish Kingdom of Fife.  And I am pretty confident that, short of a DNA test to prove it, I have Pict blood coursing through my veins: I am short, dark and hairy and very feisty.  So I am a Pict in PA.  Simple really.

And why am I in PA?  Well what do you do when your husband of many years, the father of your four children, starts a late night conversation with the phrase, “What would you think about us moving to America?”  Option one is to smother him with a pillow but I happen to love my husband so I heard him out and actually a lot of what he said made sense.  That in itself was kind of remarkable.  So my husband, who is a dual US/UK national who had not lived in the US for 20 years, set to researching and investigating how we could possibly relocate our family to the US.  It’s impossible to precis the saga that followed so to cut that epic short – just over a year on from that initial conversation, after a lot of immigration hooha at the London Embassy, a great deal of soul-searching and very difficult goodbyes, and a period of the kids and I living apart from my husband – our family of six took up residence in Pennsylvania.

So the purpose of this blog is to record my experience, as an immigrant mother, relocating family life from one side of the Atlantic to the other.  The intention is for it to be a journal of sorts, help me process my responses to new experiences and opportunities by typing it out and perhaps even provide family and friends with some insight into what we are doing as a family hundreds of miles away.