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?

Reflections on Six Months in the US

Next week will mark six months since my four kids and I emigrated from Scotland to America.  Really I ought to have written this blog entry next week, therefore, but things are already crazy busy and are going to be even more hectic next week (all to be related here) so I am pausing to take the time to reflect now on what has happened in that six months.

The minute I walked out into the airport at Newark to be greeted by my husband, having been processed through immigration with relative ease, I felt instant relief.  Partly, of course, it was because we were reunited as a family again but it was also because that last step was the culmination of a very stressful eighteen months of discussions, decisions, applications, learning immigration law, interviews, sorting, packing, donating, fraught goodbyes and separations.  At the time it did feel stressful because it was an awful lot to juggle but I don’t know that I had appreciated quite how much of a burden of stress it was until I was relieved of it and it had all been worthwhile because we were there, in America, as a family.  All of that effort, stress, expense and upheaval had actually achieved the goal.  Of course, the immigration saga has not completely ended since USCIS stuffed up and my oldest son still does not have a Green Card.  However, that is stress borne of frustration and annoyance and a sharply honed sense of injustice which is not on the same scale as the stress of the previous eighteen months.

Driving was a major cause of anxiety for me in the build up to relocating to America.  I really thought I would find it a struggle to switch to driving on the other side of the road and to get to grips with driving an automatic car since I have always had a manual car.  I decided, however, to flood my fear so the morning after the night I arrived in the US, I clambered into the driver’s seat of the car and set off.  I have never once even accidentally almost been on the wrong side of the road and my lane positioning has been pretty good from the get go.  I still hesitate to turn on red but I think that is sensible.  It’s evolutionary instinct surely.  I managed to pass my theory test without even studying (not because I was nonchalant or complacent but because I had not understood I would be made to sit it when I went to get my permit) and recently I even managed to pass my driving test despite the fact I was wigging out over the parallel parking element.  That said, as much as I have driving sussed now, I still suffer from left-right confusion here.  Just the other day I went to a grocery store and tried to enter through the exit because the doors are the other way around and then, driving home from there, when a driver kindly let me into his lane, I held my left arm aloft for a wave of gratitude.  A wave he could not see because that was not the middle of the car.  He would have seen the wave had I used my right arm.

Conversely, I thought shopping and cooking would be easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy but that has not been the case.  The supermarket layout defies the logic I am used to.  Shopping consequently still, six months on, takes me much longer than it should do as I double-back on myself or type things into the console so it tells me what aisle an ingredient is in – just for me to not then be able to find it in that aisle anyway.  However, progress is being made since in just this past month I have weaned myself off asking members of staff where on earth something is.  The cooking thing is complicated by the lack of access to ingredients I simply took for granted in Scotland and then even if I do find them sometimes those ingredients (spices in particular) are way more expensive here than they were in Scotland.  So I am learning to cook with lots of substitutions which involves some experimentation with varied rates of success.

Our biggest accomplishment since transplanting our family to the other side of the Atlantic – and the kids only had a short while to get used to the idea – is how well the kids have not just settled but have established themselves in school.  Our oldest son has had to undergo quite a lot of relearning in order to accommodate the American curriculum and things like weights and measures and general knowledge that is specifically American but he has absorbed it all like a sponge and acing tests.  The younger ones had it easier because they are that bit younger so the learning is fresh to them but still things like their vocabulary have just switched in a way that they have not for me even when I am trying to make a conscious effort to speak the American way (trousers never emerges from my mouth as pants and Z is still zed and not zee).  They all love being taught by subject specialists for certain areas of the curriculum, love not having to wear a uniform and have generally been positive and enthusiastic about their new school in a way that Mr Pict and I never could have anticipated.   In fact, we anticipated resistance and rebellion.  We were very happy indeed to be wrong.

The kids are also enjoying the proximity of everything to home.  If they need new shoes then it’s a five minute trip rather than an hour at the shortest.  Within a half hour radius we have access to cinemas, museums, galleries, parks, anything they can think of.  Where we lived in Scotland, it was over two hours on crinkly, windy, travel-sickness inducing roads to get to the city to have access to those things.  My womb is retired so this is no longer relevant but to deliver all of my babies I had to travel 90 miles to the maternity hospital.  Now in under two hours I can be in the centre of New York City.  Mr Pict and I have lived in Edinburgh and in the orbit of London so this is a lifestyle we are used to but the kids have only ever known life lived in a more remote community so this is a very different experience for them.

I still cannot get used to how the TV works here.  We have the internet version of cable (what is that even called? Streaming?) and Netflix.  These are both systems that are new to me even if they are not new to other people in Britain.  I watch some TV shows on demand but cannot remember the last time I watched anything (other than BBC World News and the Oscars) live which means I no longer have that experience of just stumbling upon a documentary or a great drama.  The flipside of my TV viewing being intentional now is that I watch a great deal less of it.  That’s probably a good thing.  I do, however, need to remind myself to watch the On Demand programmes before they become extinct.  I miss Sky+ for that reason as I guess I have become so used to series linking things and having them automatically record for me to view at my leisure that the bit of my memory bank that used to hang on to the TV schedule has atrophied.  Netflix just drives me kind of batty.

I miss the clubs I used to attend – a camera club and an art club – and I miss the camaraderie I found in being on the committee of the art club.  It was great to have that impetus to get out once  a week and do something creative with like-minded people and be inspired by them and learn from them.  I definitely miss that.  However, a new location has brought me new challenges as I joined an art journaling meetup group and am participating in an online art journal weekly challenge called The Documented Life Project.  As a result, I am forced to find the time at least once a week to sit down and do something creative and, being new to mixed media work, I am learning new skills which I might take into my “regular” art work.  Then once a month I get to meet up with a group of creative people and chart about art and be inspired by them and just (gasp!) be a grown up and do something for me.  I would, however, like to eke out more time for my usual art work, ink drawings and lino block prints.

Considering we moved to this town on spec, having never even visited this area of Pennsylvania before, we are really very pleased with our selection.  We knew the school district was great because that was the basis on which we chose to live here but we really like the neighbourhood and the people are really friendly and welcoming and the geography works for us.  We definitely want to put down roots here.

Which is where the big stress comes in because – as much as all of these other things, the littler things – are coming together – the albatross around our necks is our house in Scotland.  It still has not sold.  There has been ample interest in the house but either people have houses to sell or they cannot obtain a mortgage.  Living somewhere more remote and rural meant we could build a home (which was really our dream home) affordably but being somewhere so remote with such a small population means the real estate market is slow in the extreme.  We have had people approach us with a view to renting from us but we have no desire to be landlords, especially absentee landlords, and even if we could overcome the logisitcal, financial, legal and taxation ramifications of becoming international landlords, when it comes down to it we need the house to sell in order to release the equity so that we can buy a house here in America.  We, therefore, cannot risk taking it off the market for twelve months while someone rents it from us.  We do love the house we are renting – the house itself, the street, the neighbours, the location – but it remains “the house” rather than our home because we cannot allow ourselves to get attached to it when we are merely tenants.  Relinquishing control over property and permanency when we have been homeowners for such a long time is unsettling to say the least and the insecurity and instability of knowing what the future holds for us in terms of accommodation.  That’s the stress that keeps me up at night if I let my mind linger on it.

So that’s how things stand six months in to my life as a Scottish immigrant in America.  I wonder what the next six months has in store.

Reflections on a Spannered Spine

This morning while sorting laundry, I leaned over and my back went crack-pop.  That is not a very pleasant sound to emanate from one’s body; it was an even less pleasant sensation.  Standing up straight was agonising.  Walking made me wince.  Thankfully my older kids can get themselves back and forth to school but the littlest one needed to be taken to and collected from nursery.  So I had no choice but to pop some paracetamol, waddle along the road at a pace a snail might have sneered at and clench my jaw against the pain.

What this episode has highlighted for me is that I have been much too tardy in stocking my medicine cabinet.  I thought of the kids and bought children’s medications for “just in case” but failed to apply the same logic to medications for the adults.  Therefore, all I have to alleviate the symptoms of my cricked back is the small packet of paracetamol I had in my suitcase when I first arrived in America.  That’s it.  I could apply heat to my back but I didn’t ship my hot water bottles and have not replaced them so I improvised with a steamed towel.  Nor did I ship all of my gel-filled ice packs.  Clearly I have procrastinated too much and for too long over creating a “first aid” kit for the house.  Since I cannot drive like this, I need to await Mr Pict popping into a drug store on his way home from work to bring me the medications I need to get some proper respite – though I am hoping that by then the pain will have largely worn off anyway.

The more critical thing that this episode has underlined for me is the reminder that I don’t have anyone to call on for help when things go a tad pear-shaped.  If this had happened to me back home in Scotland, instead of soldiering on I could have called on friends to help me get the youngest child back and forth and I could even have asked them to grab me some painkillers – although I always maintained a good medicine cabinet in Scotland.  Here, however, I don’t know anyone remotely well enough that I could call upon them to help me out and do a favour for me.  Not even at a push.  Today it was just a cricked back and I could just about deal with keeping things going but I am home alone with four kids a lot of the time so it does lead me to ponder what I would do in an actual emergency, especially if the emergency centred on me.  It’s quite an isolating feeling.

Stocking the medicine cabinet is an easy fix that I will place at the top of my “To Do” list.  Generating a list of people who I can depend on in a bit of a crisis is going to be more challenging and take much more time.