After thirty years of living abroad I am spending more time in my ‘home’ country. Not only that, but I am back to the place where I lived as a young child. The experience of being securely back to my roots has given me much food for thought in terms of being an semi-expat.
The rootless existence that I believed was part of my childhood turns out to be not half as rootless as I thought. Now that I am spending more time in Holland, I have made an amazing discovery. I have roots!!
Which begs the question; Did all this moving around disconnect me from my roots, or was being rootless and having no sense of belonging just a phase that all internationals go through?
Throwing your bike in the ditch is okay
As I cycle around and about, wind blowing around my ears, I reconnect with the young girl who would think, “keep cycling and stop moaning!” For five years I cycled 45 minutes to school and home again, in any kind of weather. And we considered that entirely normal. That ‘keep cycling and stop moaning’ attitude is testament to a prevailing culture in the Netherlands and certainly one that was reinforced in our family culture. But it wasn’t until I left ‘my’ culture that I realised that this also led to an inner cruelty that was detrimental to self-nurture and care.
Aged 21 I moved to the UK, having lived there for three years during childhood. And despite the British reputation for the stiff upper lip, I must have experienced a greater tolerance there for a softer more gentle approach to life. Where in our local Calvinist church in Holland we sang psalms on whole notes while remaining seated, in the Anglican church we would be allowed to stand up and sing beautifully melodious hymns, comprising praise and exaltation, as much as humility and contrition. While living in the UK I lost two of my first pregnancies. A few months after the first miscarriage I began to realise that the ‘keep cycling and don’t moan’ strategy just didn’t work. I opened my ears to other cultural messages and learned that sometimes it is okay to throw your bike in the ditch, stamp your feet and have a good cry.
Then you can get back on
Over the years that belief has also guided me in my work. There is a time to despair and shake your fists at the sky, and a time to accept and move on. The latter builds on the former, it doesn’t replace it. In other words, my roots came bundled up with messages that my rootlessness allowed me to shake off for long enough to learning something new. Four years ago I had no connection at all with the country of my birth. Slowly but surely a sense of homesickness started to take hold and now I find myself in this full-fledged love affair with my roots. Perhaps my whole international journey was one of sifting out old messages, learning new from other cultures, and then bringing them back home, to apply them wisely to a new set of circumstances.
Finding the happy medium
The Dutch live in each other’s pockets and it is not done to turn someone away if they turn up unexpectedly for a cup of coffee. Moreover, a friend in need is a friend that needs you now, not later. While my temporary reconnection to the country of my birth is partly driven by a need to socially interact with people that are not afraid of social contact, I find that I also bring with me a new found freedom about setting boundaries and being less available. Again, having let go of my roots, to the point of thinking they did not exist, I could adapt, adjust and literally ‘bring home’ a view that encourages me now to find the middle ground between being more of a social animal than I feel I can be in my other home, and yet not let it take over my life to the detriment of my own needs as a writer. But the temptation to regress back to the old moral norms and codes is there too, so it is not always an easy compromise to make. And it can be argued that there are plenty of people that never move a mile from their first home and still manage to make these adjustments as they grow older and wiser.
I just had to go far far away in order to disengage and re-engage when the time was right. But that didn’t mean that a Place called Home wasn’t there waiting for me all that time. And that’s a great discovery. A true Treasure. So maybe I haven’t been lying all these years, maybe I truly needed to fully disconnect and experience non-belonging and rootlessness to be open to learning new ideas about what is right or wrong behaviour. And maybe the challenge now is to find the best synthesis between rooted behaviour and adapted behaviour, giving a true sense of inner freedom as I breathe in the gloriously familiar smell of manure being spread around the fields. And there’s a metaphor for dealing with your life’s shit 🙂