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.

A Year of Immigrant Life

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Today marks the first anniversary of the four children and I arriving in America.  A whole year already.  Really?  Didn’t I just get here?  How the heck did that happen?  So what have we accomplished in our first year as immigrants?

My biggest anxiety about practical, everyday life was driving.  Having spent my entire adult life driving on the left from a driving position on the right, switching to sitting on the left and driving on the right involved many changes of gear in spatial awareness.  Amazingly I have never once even momentarily thought about driving on the other side of the road but my parking is still questionable.  Not dreadful any longer, just questionable.  I passed my driving theory test by dint of common sense, generic driving experience, fluke and sheer luck since I had no idea applying for a provisional license meant taking the actual test.  And then I passed my practical driving test and was issued with a proper, bone fide US driver’s license.  By driving around a mall car park for five minutes after parallel parking.  My confidence is slowly growing with driving on major roads, the main cause of my anxious palpitations being that cars can exit a major road from either the left or the right and roads often split with little warning.  I don’t do spontaneity with driving.

Of course, having a US driving license then afforded me the ability to do lots of other things.  Like actually function.  Because in America, without that critical item of identification, you may as well be the Invisible Man because nobody is going to regard you as an actual person if you don’t have that bit of laminated card to prove it.  The loops and spirals of beauracratic Catch-22-ness I endured just trying to get my name on any documents without having a driving licence – including applying for the ruddy driving license itself – would have been farcical had it not been so stressful.  I still have zero credit history here so am still a non-person in that regard but I have a driving license so that’s progress.

In addition to having my driving license, I also have my Green Card.  So do three of my children.  We are still – a year into stepping foot on American soil – awaiting the Green Card for our oldest son.  I won’t rehash the series of epic failures by USCIS and USPS that led to this appalling situation because goodness knows I have ranted about it, possibly ad nauseam, in this blog so many times but it is tiresome and frustrating.  Endlessly, upsettingly frustrating.  The insistence on following predetermined routes through all the bureaucracy, the sheer inflexibility, the lack of application of any common sense, is actually pretty staggering.

One massive accomplishment is that we are now home owners again.  I thought I would experience more emotional turbulence over our house in Scotland selling but actually it malingered on the market for longer than we anticipated, thus becoming a stressful albatross around my neck, so I felt relief when it sold and I am happy that the family who bought it will forge many happy memories there as we did over ten years.  The sale of our house then enabled us to press forward with buying a house here.  Which we did.  Rapidly.  No time to let your heels cool in this particular housing market.  We are very happy with the house we chose, the whole buying process went pretty smoothly, and now we have a house to call home again.  I already feel at home here.  It feels like a good fit for us.  Now I get to transform the house and get it looking like it is ours, dragging it a little bit at least out of the 1970s.

I also now have all four boys in school.  After over eleven years of having at least one kid at home with me, that is a big deal.  They get to spend their days learning, developing, growing as people and I get to have a less frenzied day.  I get to experience (gasp) free time.  In that free time, I have been trying to get back into creating again as I had a lengthy period, when transitioning between countries, when I was not even drawing.  I have just completed my 40 day Drawing a Day challenge in order to build my creative stamina and blow the cobwebs off my drawing skills.  I have also taken up Art Journalling in this past year – something I did not know even existed until the beginning of 2014 – and that has led to me embarking on experiments in mixed media which I am enjoying far more than I anticipated.  My list of art projects I want to complete grows longer and longer every day.  Indeed, I have lists of lino block prints I want to carve, lists of ink drawings I want to do, lists of mixed media pieces I want to try, lists of art challenges to embark upon …. endless lists of creative things.  I just need to find the time.

Despite all these accomplishments, I am still not quite settled here.  Physically and environmentally I am settled here.  I never, ever, ever want to move again for a start.  I did a happy dance when I donated all my packing boxes to someone.  Seriously.  Right there on the street, I bust out some “I’m rid of the boxes” moves.  I also very much like the area we have landed up in – thank goodness because it was a pretty blind leap – and our new house is in a lovely neighbourhood.  But psychologically, emotionally, I am not yet settled here.  I am still very much aware of being an alien.  People very much struggle with my accent on the phone – though not quite so much in real life – and I can never quite reach for the American vocabulary in time.  My kids, on the other hand, are acing that challenge and have adapted their language beautifully.  Sometimes I even struggle to find the word I want in English let alone America-English.  And trousers are never going to be pants.  Never.

More than always being aware of my difference, my outsider status, however – which ultimately I don’t really mind because I’ve never been one for conformity anyway – is the unsettling realisation that over two decades of adult life has been reset to zero.  I have landed on these shores as a blank slate.  All my knowledge and experience of how life worked in Britain, how to do things, how the law worked, how healthcare worked, even grocery products for goodness sakes, has all been erased by my relocation to America.  I have to ask “daft” questions constantly because people assume I have a degree of knowledge I simply do not possess.  This is emphatically the case when trying to navigate the labyrinth that is the US healthcare system which seems designed to test and thwart people rather than support and treat them.  And all at a price.  I cannot even begin to convey how much I miss the NHS.  I could weep into my pillow over how much I miss the NHS.

However, our motivation for relocating has proven to be a solid basis for our decision and that makes it easier to endure and overcome the sustained levels of stress I have experienced at junctures in this past year.  We still believe we made the right decision.  There are more opportunities here for us as a family than we had where we lived before.  “Land of Opportunities”.  We have been able to take our kids to do things here that would have either been impossible back in Argyll or would have involved a stressful, expensive slog to a population centre.  There are museums and galleries and historic sites galore in this area.  There are state parks and there are national parks.  My oldest son has been to a local synagogue to hear a talk by a Holocaust survivor.  Heck, our school district even has its own planetarium.  We are also enjoying travelling and exploring.  Prior to our immigration, my oldest three sons had only ever been to one state (California) and the youngest had never even been to America before, or on an aeroplane, and now they have a whole continent laid out before them to explore.  In this past year, they have already “collected” a few states.  I, however, have only been revisiting states I had already collected so I need to start engineering some trips to states I have never been to (since I have an ambition to visit all 50 US states).  My husband is loving his new job and the children are thriving at school.  We are still very much in the throes of starting over but I think life could be very good here for us.

Just as well because I am never moving again.   Ever.  Have I emphasised that enough?

My Kids doodled in my Art Journal

Being new to art journaling, I decided to join in a project that would provide me with prompts, tips and inspiration.  As such I am participating in the Documented Life Project.  This week’s challenge was to have someone else draw in your journal and then finish the page.  

Back in Scotland I would have asked one of my many artist friends to collaborate on the challenge with me but here I had three options: ask Mr Pict to draw something; ask one of my kids to draw something; ask all of my kids to draw something.  I plumped for the last option.  Since one of the ideas behind the project is to – as it says on the tin – document your life, I decided that the prompt for my children should be a reflection on the things they have enjoyed about living in America so far.  This was what they came up with:

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My four year old drew a minion because he is obsessed with minions and was excited to meet one when we were in Times Square; my six year old drew the Empire State Building because visiting it fulfilled one of his ambitions – and he even included King Kong on it; my eight year old drew Abraham Lincoln because he has been enjoying learning all about Presidents; and my ten year old drew a hot dog because he is enjoying eating lots of new foods.

I determined that I did not want to alter their drawings too much as I wanted to preserve this moment of reflection on their experiences of their new home five months into our relocation.  So I just added some detail to the drawings using red and blue ink, added some words generated during a chat with them about the things they were enjoying about life here so far and then added some stars because that seemed to work well with the colour theme.

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