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.

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.

 

Small Differences: Back to School Supplies

Goodness it has been a while since I wrote a “Small Differences” post!  I wonder if that is a sign that I am pretty well acclimatised and assimilated into everyday American life.

This morning my children all returned to school after the looooooong summer break.  We have had a lovely summer between our travel back to Britain, having guests, our History of Art project and having fun in our home environs.  However, the four boys and I have been together 24/7 for 10 weeks now.  As much as getting back into the routine will be a shock to the system, we all really need to get back into our own grooves.  My treat for my first child-free day in ages is to sit down with a hot cup of tea before running errands and doing the household chores.  Gosh, the lavishness.  As I waited for the kettle to boil, I thought about the way in which the preparations for the return to school differ on both sides of the Atlantic.  It involves a small but significant difference: school supply shopping.

In Scotland, the shopping preparation ahead of the new school year was clothes based. My kids would need outfitting in new uniforms, thankfully standard polo shirts and trousers that could be bought very affordably. The only items requiring much investment of thought and planning were the jumpers and the shoes – the former because they needed an embroidered logo so had to be ordered in advance and the latter because I had to buy them in time for school but not so soon that they were outgrown before they were required. Plus we lived 86 miles from the nearest big shops so the shopping trip was a bit of an expedition. But that was it. Just the uniform. Maybe a new backpack if the old one had been wrecked. Maybe some optional colored pencils in a pencil case.

Here in America, however, purchasing the supplies for the following year is a major endeavor and not too little an expense either.

Each year, the teachers issue a list of items that parents are expected – required – to supply. And it’s not a short list. Half a side of A4 is size 12 font for my Elementary aged kids and at least three quarters of a page for my Middle Schooler. With four kids to buy for, that’s a whole load of supplies. The items run from stationery – pencils, glue sticks, lined paper – to cleaning supplies – disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizing gel – to memory sticks and, this year, a chrome book for my oldest son, purchased through a school scheme.

What’s additionally annoying is that brand name items are requested – pretty much demanded. There’s no just doing a trolley dash around Walmart or Target and bunging in the cheapest items. No, no, no. Generic will not pass muster. For some items it makes sense: Crayola crayons lay down better pigment; anyone whose had to keep sharpening the same pencil because it’s lead constantly snaps appreciates the value of Ticinderoga pencils. But won’t store brand disinfectant wipes clean just as effectively as Clorox? Kids always leave lids off glue sticks so they dry out just as quickly if they are generic as they do if they are Elmer’s. But I submit and conform and fall in line as I don’t want my kids to be the one in the class handing in boxes of no brand tissues. Except my 7th grader can have reinforced cardboard folders with envelope pockets because the plastic ones are double the price. That’s my rebellion.

With four kids, the price of this stuff soon stacks up too. Last year I actually went to the bother of doing price comparisons. This year I decided that my time has a value too so no price comparisons and no visiting multiple shops. Instead I ordered the required box of goodies from the Elementary for the three younger kids. It might cost me a few dollars more but it saves me time, effort and not having to carry all that stuff to school on the first day.

The reason why I have to provide all of these items is the real bug bear though: schools are too underfunded to provide the necessary items from their own budgets. They, therefore, rely on parents to provide essential items of stationery. Ours is a good school district that’s funded better than many in the area but still I’m providing basic items like lined paper so my oldest can do written work and whiteboard markers for the teacher to actually write with.  If parents didn’t provide these items, likely the teachers would dip into their own salaries to purchase them. That’s something I did in my own teaching career but for items over and above the essentials. I would buy prizes for my students or extra little bits and bobs to make a wall display more visually appealing. At no point was I having to reach into my own purse for pens or pencils or paper for my students.

Chronic underfunding of education here, however, means that special, “treat” items come from fund raising – which is so near constant that I wish I could just hand over a lump some up front to not be perpetually hassled for money – and many essential items are donated by parents. And if it’s like this in our school district then materials must be thin on the ground in school districts working with very Spartan budgets, such as in Philly itself.

So it was a bit of a culture shock to be faced with shopping lists for school each year and I do feel hassled and peeved by it to an extent but I would rather the money be spent on teaching than on pencils. It’s just shocking to me that such decisions should even have to be made.

Back to Blighty #22 – Old Sarum Cathedral

Back in Wiltshire just ahead of our flight back to America, we decided to go for a walk and stretch our legs.  Old Sarum can be seen from my in-laws’ house so it was an obvious destination.  The kids had already been on an excursion to visit the ancient hillfort with their grandfather earlier in our trip so we decided to take a trek to the ruins of the old Cathedral, which are outside the moated walls of Old Sarum.

We decided to take a circular route and it took us past fields, over styles and past an enclosure containing horses.  My 8 year old son is a horse fanatic so that was a highlight for him.

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The Cathedral dates from the Norman era and was in use until the decision was taken to build the Cathedral in Salisbury in the early 13th Century.  The old cathedral was dismantled and stone from it was used in the construction of its replacement.  It has, therefore, been a ruin for very many centuries, though the footprint is still very clear to see.

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My boys did their usual thing of using the ruins as the setting for some imaginative play and as a climbing frame.  They spent a very long time playing in a lower level space.  I was able to sit in the sun watching them play and observing the bemusement of other tourists who wandered over and observed my kids performing.

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That trek up Old Sarum was the final excursion of our trip back to Britain and it was good to end on a familiar and favourite spot.  We managed to cram a great deal into our month in the UK – as I am sure you will agree since this is the 22nd blog post about our trip.

 

Back to Blighty #21 – Hadrian’s Wall

In order to break up the long car journey from Fife to Wiltshire, we decided to stop off on Hadrian’s Wall.  We had been to Hadrian’s Wall a few times before, including hiking stretches of it with a toddler and a baby in 2006, but we never tire of it – especially Mr Pict since he is a fanatical geek when it comes to ancient Rome.  Our original plan had been to visit Vindolanda, an extensive fort with a fantastic museum.  However, we made such terrible time on the first stretch of our journey that we decided not to commit too much time to a single site and to instead visit two or three sites along Hadrian’s Wall, ones that were free to access so that we didn’t feel we had to stay in any one spot for too long.

Hadrian’s Wall – a defensive barrier between Roman occupied England and Scotland, running wild with ferocious Picts like me – stretches the width of Northern England from the Solway Firth in the West to the Tyne in the East.  There were forts approximately every five miles and milecastles in between.  It was essentially the boundary marker for Roman Britain.  It is popular with hikers and history enthusiasts and it passes through some wonderful landscapes and wonderful, sleepy little villages.  It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987 and I think it ought to feature on everyone’s travel “bucket list”.

Our first stop of the day was the Temple of Mithras near Carrawburgh.  The last time we took the kids there, it was raining, the fields were completely water-logged and the temple was submerged under water.  We were glad, therefore, of the opportunity to give them a proper visit.  The trio of carved altars at the end of the temple are reproductions but it still provides a clear indication of what the structure would have looked like.  The cult of Mithras emphasised valour and honour and as such was popular with Roman soldiers and that means its proximity to Hadrian’s Wall makes complete sense.

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Next stop was just a little further west along the route, at Steel Rigg.  This was our first visit to this site and it proved to be a perfect example of the way in which the Wall had been built to conform to the contours of the landscape.  It sloped downwards from hill to valley – where the remains of a milecastle were clearly visible – and then it sharply climbed up a steep and craggy hill.  As we walked down the gentle slope towards the milecastle, the littlest Pict took off at high speed on his sturdy little legs and didn’t stop.  He bounded up the steep, rubbly path as if it was flat ground.  He was nimble as a mountain goat, confident and fearless.  I, on the other hand, was petrified – especially when he galloped past other visitors on the narrow path and was right on the edge.  It was also incredibly blustery and the strong winds did not help me feel secure on my feet as we ascended.  The view from the top was spectacular as it was possible to see the Wall stretching off into the green horizon in both directions.  If ascending had been nerve-wracking, descending was even worse.  The wind had picked up even more plus the perspective looking down at drops onto crags and boulders rather than facing into the rocky path was really amping up my acrophobia.  My boys meanwhile were leaping from rock to rock, practically pirouetting on the edge of the path, bounding down the narrow path, and were making my knees quake.

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Our last stop on that visit to Hadrian’s Wall was the stretch that is near Cawfields Quarry, which we have visited before.  The quarry itself is rather picturesque, a massive triangle of rock rising above the quarry which is filled with water.  The boys spent some time watching birds floating around on its surface.  However, the quarry cuts right through the wall which is visually dramatic but archaeologically devastating.  The three younger Pictlings and I headed along the path to checkout the milecastle, one of the best preserved along the entire Wall.  The walls of the milecastle as well as Hadrian’s Wall itself are really thick at this point so my kids had fun climbing over the walls and pretending to be Roman soldiers guarding the fort.

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We would have loved to have crammed in a few more spots on Hadrian’s Wall but it was mid-afternoon when we finished our exploration at Cawfields and we had not even had breakfast yet.  We also had a long journey ahead of us still as we had to get to Wiltshire at the other end of England.  I have no doubt, however, that we will return to Hadrian’s Wall again some time.

Back to Blighty #20 – Lochore Meadows Country Park

Lochore Meadows Country Park, in Lochgelly, Fife, is on the site of a former colliery.  What was once an expanse of industrial waste and coal bing hillocks was transformed into an outdoor space for people to enjoy.  Knowing that we had a long car journey ahead of us the following day that would keep us all cooped up, it was the perfect venue for letting the boys roam free and burn off some energy.

The playground is arranged around a series of mounds, echoing the coal bings I imagine, so there was lots to explore, loads to do, and plenty of fun to be had.  The boys were especially impressed with the slides because they were long, steep and very slidey indeed.  There were climbing frames that looked reminiscent of mining structures, swings and spinning discs that made the kids dizzy.

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There was a gritty beach around the shore of Loch Ore – which is used for water sports – and the beach was populated by some moody looking swans.  Their poop was all over the shoreline which just added to my loathing of sandy beaches.  Nevertheless, my 9 year old decided to go paddling and ended up having soaking wet jeans for the rest of the day.  At least nobody was attacked by a grumpy swan, however, so there’s that.

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Having exhausted the playground, we wandered over to the area of the park that still has a tangible connection to the site’s coal mining past.  A large concrete headframe with its winding gear looms over the horizon.  Two of my sons immediately asked if they could climb it.  Thankfully that is not remotely possible so I didn’t even have to put my foot down on the basis of safety.  However, at the base of the headframe is a locomotive engine.  It would once have been used to transport coal from the mine but now was a combined piece of local industrial history and a fun climbing frame.  The kids immediately started scaling the engine and were soon crawling all over it.  They had a whale of a time.  The locomotive was definitely the highlight of the day for them.

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