First comes love, then comes…

As I alluded to in earlier posts, my hiatus from blogging life was due to a little wittle meltdown. Like many of life’s misfortunes, the instigating event was nothing unusual but searing nonetheless. (Hint: it starts with ‘d’ and rhymes with schmizorce.)

I’ve been wrestling with this for a while – if and how and when to write about it. I genuinely feel more comfortable calling it “schmizorce” than its real name because the word still makes my heart curl up into a tiny ball of sad. So why do I feel the compulsion to write about it at all? Would it not be safer, saner, wiser to avoid it altogether? Stick with less messy topics such as How to Make the Perfect Salami Platter or 9 Steps to Sculpting Sexy Armpits. Perhaps it’s because I don’t know how to do either of those things.

Although terrifying, there’s something liberating about sharing what a mess you’ve made of things – admissions of failures, weaknesses, and insecurities. I recently came across Lea Thau’s podcast, Strangers, in which she gives a raw account of her own excruciating experiences with breakups and dating in a series called Love Hurts. Listening to it you think, “Holy moly Lea, I don’t even know you, and you’re getting all emotionally naked for me!” But this is the exact reason her stories are so engaging and endearing. Listening to them made me just want to track her down, give her a big hug, and braid her hair while I shared my own tales of woe. Her show proves that the more intimate and personal a story is, the more relatable it is. I know that some people find these public confessions cringe-worthy or maybe crass. To them I recommend the fairytale pretend-land that is Pinterest. But to me there’s nothing more depressing than seeing a perfectly executed and photographed brioche made from scratch.

This line of thinking makes me want to write about my schmizorce in an open and honest way. (First baby step would probably be: spell out the d-word). There’s one thing holding me back, however – the fact that it’s not just my story to tell but also that of my ex, Schmitchell (not his real name). Because I do not have the luxury of hating him, I would like to protect his privacy and feelings. This is a good thing for both of us. So instead of giving you a sincere account of my heartache, I’m going to cop out and give you only vague details of my thoughts and feelings on the subject. I’ll be heavy-handed with the jokes, so we don’t veer too far into train wreck territory. You won’t learn much but nobody gets hurt. When I get better at this writing business, I might find a more graceful way of navigating the art of confessional writing. Until then, here we go…

D…D…Divorce was not exactly a milestone I hoped to accomplish by age 30, so needless to say, it was quite the err…curveball. “Curveball?” you ask before lecturing me about the predictability of my situation due to the ever-rising divorce rates and how we Millennials are doing it wrong because we’re all spoiled idiots. But like everyone who gets married, I thought we were an exception. What could possibly be so hard about fusing yourself to another human being for a lifetime? [Note: People do tell you all the time that it’s “hard work,” but they never quite elaborate. Methinks conspiracy.]

I had another reason besides hubris for thinking I might be on the winning side of the marital coin toss. Prior to Mitchell, I never had dreams of getting married, good little feminist that I am. That meant I wasn’t doing it for the “wrong” reasons. I did not have a general desire to just get married already, nor was I marrying into money, nor did I have a uterus screaming, “Me hungry for BABY!” No, I was doing it for the “right” reason, love. Mad love. The kind of love where people get irritated at the sight of you and your pretend fights over who loves the other one more (No, I love YOU more…No that is metaphysically impossible because I have just invented a new kind of love for you that’s never existed, and it’s way bigger than any love this planet has ever known…No, I love you more than that even…yeah we were gross).

For the first time, I was swept away by the romanticism of marriage. The idea that I may still remain lovable ‘til the end of my days, even as my flesh balloons and I begin flinging crazed rants at “young people” and their stupid trendy pants. The only differences between marriage and shacking up in my mind are the societal approval and the commitment to try one’s damndest to make it work. No fleeing allowed at the first signs of weakness. No BS lines about how “it’s not you, it’s me. Thy light shines too bright for mine eyes.” No dummy, you’re gonna have to elaborate, self-reflect, and get your ass to counseling. Grow the hell up already. There’s something very comforting in that.

But in our case, when the first signs of marital discord arose, we didn’t follow those rules so closely. I won’t elaborate on Mitchell’s behavior, but for my part, I chose instead to: a) flee the country I was living in, b) throw tantrums and whine at friends for hours months, c) wallow in a well of self-pity, and d) compose psychotic letters that I thankfully never mailed. Just kidding! I did yoga. Lots and lots of yoga [cough].   In my defense, the whole divorce thing wasn’t my idea. When Mitchell first uttered the D-word in an argument, my world collapsed. This was probably our fifth argument ever, and the D-bomb made an appearance?! I was stunned. We had planned a trip to Malaysia the next morning, and against all reason, I decided to go alone. I spent the week wandering through the country in a weepy stupor, feigning interest in the sites around me as my emotions did somersaults. One minute depressed, the next elated and self-righteous, the next in denial. Total crazypants.

I realize that under some circumstances, divorce is a welcomed occurrence, making one’s heart erupt into an impromptu Turkish dance party. Or as Louis CK put it, “Marriage is just like a larvae stage for true happiness, which is divorce.”  And perhaps I’m overdramatizing it by making it seem worse than a breakup sans court orders. Clearly, I can only speak for myself. This heartbreak was my most crushing.

Although my marriage was short-lived, I believe its end has been more difficult than past breakups because it represented the death of something greater than a relationship. Ok stop that – I can feel your eyes rolling and hear you saying, “It’s just a piece of paper, man.” Is marriage more significant than other relationships, and if so, why? My answers are: yes maybe, and I have a few ideas.

Marriage shapes your identity in a way that other relationships do not. Although subtle, I remember feeling a sort of shift in my status as a married person. Level up. I would have never guessed that would happen until it did. People view you and interact with you differently. They seem to honor your relationship more. Men leave you alone. Women seem more comfortable around you, or at least coupled women do. I can’t explain exactly how this is felt, but you feel like you have a more solid standing in the world. Perhaps you internalize the message that people are sending you, the message that at least you got one thing in life right, marriage. Lea Thau talks about this in the final episode of Love Hurts. I can’t say it better, so I’ll quote her:

Married people have this clear place to stand in the world…and the rest of us are just getting bumped along by the masses on the sidewalk trying not to get swallowed up or crushed…Outwardly, married people can seem sort of untouchable. Like who can question you when you have a husband? And I know because I used to have one. And you know what, I’m sorry to say this, but I did have a slightly smug sense of superiority that I was never aware of until I didn’t have it anymore, when I was suddenly single.

Smugness – a side effect of getting that societal pat on the head. Yes, although I wouldn’t have recognized it at the time, I felt a bit smug too if I’m honest. So when divorce happens, not only are you dealing with the loss of a partner, you’re also struggling with the shame and humiliation of losing that status. You’ve been demoted. Booted from the golden club of marrieds. Worse, you can’t even claim to be single anymore. No no, there’s a whole separate category for the likes of you. A new box to check:

marital status

Jeez, even single folks these days have to identify as “never married.” I’m especially neurotic, so I experience a sort of meta version of shame around this – I’m ashamed of failing at marriage, yes, but I’m also ashamed of being ashamed about it. Double shame pancake, no good. Divorce is a lot less stigmatized than it used to be, and I know logically there’s no shame in it but still, there it is.

To me, the other reason divorce feels traumatic is that marriage is fraught with the future. It’s the structure which you build your future hopes and expectations around, so when it collapses, those fall with it. They were never real to begin with, only in your head, but you miss them all the same. All long term relationships have this to a degree, but it’s the promise of forever that sets marriage apart.

It’s not all sad bananas, though. Silver linings abound. The experience helped me appreciate that hey, I have friends, and hey, they’re AMAZING. Oh love! This was true not just for my inner circle of friends, but also those I hadn’t felt so close to. People who had never opened up to me before started sharing their own stories of heartbreak. Their kindness and honesty helped me feel less frightened and alone. And they seriously stroked my ego, lavishing me with compliments and praise (Sarah, it can’t be! You are gorgeous and perfect and very much non-divorceable!!) I’m ever so grateful. In particular, I’d like to thank Jeannette, Lucey, Kelly, and Aaron for the depth of patience, love, and generosity they showed me during this time. Thanks also to Mitchell – while we both had our less than shiny moments, he was very kind and compassionate to me the whole way through. That’s just his way .

Another silver lining to having your life go off track is that it forces you to reevaluate yourself and your priorities. It’s helped me recognize some of the obstacles that have been holding me back, and I feel more motivated now to actually get to work tackling them. It is the beginning of something new, and that something is still open and full of possibility. More and more often, it’s starting to feel exciting, this potential for a fresh start. I’ve always been a fan of fresh starts, although I concede that having an emotional breakdown may not be the best strategy for accomplishing it. [Note to self: when you feel the need to spice up your life, try traveling].

This is a bit of a heavy subject for one of my early posts, but I can’t help myself. In the works: relationship tips from a recent divorcée (i.e., how not to do relationships). Look forward to that.

 

Featured image is my own.

 

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Reverse Culture Shock: Moving Back to the Homeland

Anyone who has spent roughly a day in transit from one side of the globe to the other will tell you that it’s a disorienting experience. One day, you’re dodging chickens, street vendors, and motorbikes in the road, and the next you’re confronted by stopped motorists insisting you cross the street before they pass.  Over the years, I coveted my trips from Vietnam to the US and back. Stepping off the plane, life takes on a surreal glow. It’s a novelty-seeker’s dream with heightened senses and intensified experiences. Basically, it’s like being high minus the trouble of scoring drugs and for the low low cost of a $1500 ticket.

Hanoi and Kansas City - Slight Difference

Hanoi and Kansas City – Slight Difference

This feeling can last from a couple of weeks to months, depending on the regularity of the trips. Once the dust settles, many suffer from culture shock as they adjust to a new country and culture. But there’s also “reverse culture shock” or “re-entry shock,” the shock of returning home after a number of years abroad. For some, this shock is the more jarring of the two. The fact that you have to adjust to your own country is surprising. The familiar has become unfamiliar. Previously an expert at navigating American culture, now you find yourself confused at the mention of car sharing, vine, real housewives, honey boo boos, food to tabling, Deepak Chopra, Zumba, the dwindling irony of mustaches, baby food diets, dragon babies, and ice dudes. Ok, Vietnam has internet access, so missing the viral videos is on me. It does make my heart smile to see Harvard baseball players being shamelessly dorky, but I digress.

My extensive research on the experience of reverse culture shock (i.e., this website), explains that part of the shock stems from having the expectation that your hometown won’t have changed at all upon your return:

Often students expect to be able to pick up exactly where they left off. A problem arises when reality doesn’t meet these expectations…things may have changed at home: your friends and family have their own lives, and things have happened since you’ve been gone. This is part of why home may feel so foreign.

In other words, it brings into sharp focus the harsh fact that you are not, as previously believed, the center of the goddamn universe. Adding insult to injury, not only has the world not paused for you while you were away, your friends and family back home actually don’t care to hear too much about your life-changing experiences overseas, with the exception of any funny anecdotes illustrating how people in other places are very different and strange indeed (which granted, I dwelt on quite a bit myself while I was away…they eat snakes! Ooooohhhh…click click click of camera).

Click click

Click click

Yes, the whole ordeal is a cruel check on one’s narcissism. Did I suffer from these symptoms you ask, or am I above it all? Me? Have a center-of-the-universe complex? No. Well…kind of. With the help of regular visits back home and Facebook, I was fairly aware that my friends and family carried on in my absence, making decisions without my approval and selfishly failing to fill me in on the minute details. That part did not surprise me all that much. What did surprise me was the evolution of the cities I had previously known, which in my mind were becoming sleeker in their urban landscapes. Everything appeared to have the sheen of newness, but with an organic, natural twist. Hand-crafted, local, premium, original, one of a kind. A backlash against the homogeneity and plasticity of commercial chains that have dominated cities over the past few decades. Even Walmart presents itself as a “neighborhood market” these days. I can only imagine that such Orwellian advertising is illegal in Europe.

There is a part of me that can relate to the expectation that life would pick up where I left it. While I didn’t expect my surroundings or the people to be the same, I did expect my own story to carry on as if it were still 2008. Almost as if I would arrive back in the US as a 25 year old, with all the time in the world to figure out the basics of being an adult. It’s akin to when you return to your childhood home for the holidays and revert back to the 16 year old version of yourself. For instance, you may find yourself shrieking at your father, “Stop controlling my life! You don’t understand my suffering!” or having to actually remind yourself that basic manners dictate that you, not your mom, should do your own dishes.

It’s a state of arrested development, or so I imagine. I can’t tell if I’m behind or in line with my peers on this one, as we’re constantly accused of having Peter Pan syndrome regardless of whether or not we’ve been abroad. I do feel that I’ve grown in many ways in the past six years, but I lament over how much further I have to go. That in fact, there is no end to this process, it just keeps going. I’m supposed to be comforted by this ‘life’s-a-journey’ perspective, but instead I am prone to petulant feelings such as, “Maa…why am I not just done with this growing up crap already, god, get on with it and be all sophisticated-like and stuff?” Part of this is surely the slowly-growing recognition that life is finite, and it’s incredibly difficult to keep focus on the very few things that actually matter. So many distractions, most of them manufactured by our relentless and neurotic thoughts. Perhaps this feeling is why I felt compelled the other day to stop my audiobook and write down the following quote from Edward St. Aubyn:

It might not have been obvious to anyone else, but he longed to stop thinking about himself. To stop strip mining his memories. To stop the introspective and retrospective drift of his thoughts. He wanted to break into a wider world. To learn something.  To make a difference. Above all, he wanted to stop being a child without using the cheap disguise of becoming a parent.

[Note: Sorry to the parents out there, no offense intended. But I will admit that I have thought about parenthood as a possible shortcut to self-fulfillment. The reasoning doesn’t quite sit well with me, though. If I have children, it will be only for the purpose of passing on the genetic line of redheads, as we are a dwindling but dignified population.]

There is the possibility that by forcing us to realize, if only for an instant, that we are not the center of the universe, reverse culture shock is doing us ex-expats a favor. Alright then, I’ve earned that life lesson merit badge, onto the next one.

All photos in this post are my own.

Living in Tiny Spaces

When I moved to Seattle in March, my first priority was finding a place to live. All the stuff I owned fit into one rented SUV, and I had a week to find a home for it before the vehicle was to be returned. The quantity and nature of my possessions has changed over the years according to the different phases of my life. It expanded some when I moved to California and needed my own furniture, then contracted again when I moved overseas. Once back in the US, in Overland Park, KS, I failed to rebuild my hoard it to its previous gluttonous glory. Freshly husband-less, jobless, and homeless, I viewed my stay there as a temporary hiccup in my life, one I would joke about later, perhaps while giving a TED talk about my latest research breakthrough (spoiler alert: I find a cure for racism). I therefore refused to buy anything substantial, like say, a bed or a chair. But don’t worry, I wasn’t suffering. I was working the middle class version of homelessness, i.e., I was the weird aunt living in my sister’s basement. Hanging out with my beloved sister and her gorgeous children made that experience a lot less depressing than it could’ve been.

Back to Seattle. I had one week to find a place, very little stuff but stuff I didn’t want on the curb, and basically no knowledge of the city whatsoever. But that’s what the internet is for. I saw a fancy website not advertising an apartment complex but rather a “project” of “stylish eco studios” with “flexible space” and “energy efficiency.” The studios are modeled after the Swedish lifestyle, it claimed. My eyes widened as glamorous images passed through my mind. Sweden? ABBA…Vikings…health care…maternity leave…Eric Northman. Sold.

Knowing it was a studio, I thought I was prepared for small, but no I wasn’t. I had an awkward moment of stunned silence with the property manager when I first saw it, followed immediately by a flurry of rationalizing (It’s okay, I can just follow Maria Bamford’s lead and “crouch, naked, in the shower and get real small.”)

SONY DSC

Yes, don’t let the multiple angles fool you…it’s small. Like Japan small. To save space, the bed doubles as a table, the microwave doubles as an oven, the toilet doubles as the kitchen sink – it’s genius. To show you the place, I have to exit the room so you can fit inside and look around. That highlights its biggest downside – the inability to house out-of-town guests, unless they wanna get all creepster with me and sleep in the same bed.

But wait, there are upsides:

Furniture/Appliance Shopping: To fill the place I had to buy exactly 4 things from IKEA (callback to Sweden): dresser, comfy chair, and 2 folding chairs. Given that I have nowhere to put new things, it actually does curb my spending. Nope, no room for that fancy 25 piece blender/chopper thingy that I’d use 3 times. Money in the bank, not chopped carrots.

Murphy Bed: Having a murphy bed makes me feel like a secret agent with a super sneaky hiding place for all my nefarious belongings (I got some crazy books, y’all).

Home Decor: Grab some flowers and a giraffe made out of coke cans, and bam, apartment decorated.

SONY DSC

Self-Improvement: Now I have claim to the title of minimalist as I’ve shunned the shallow consumerist lifestyle for a more basic and genuine existence. I feel sorry for you and your gerbil-like need for all your crappy things. While I didn’t do this by design, I must admit that I do like having less stuff. There’s something to the simplicity of it. It just feels better, and I don’t know why. This guy argues that having less stuff gives you more freedom, time and money. (But, you cry, what are we going to do with that money if we cannot buy stuff??!! Doesn’t make sense!)

Oddly, while it did take getting used to, it’s really grown on me. And I’m about 98% sure I’m not saying that to make myself feel better.

All photos are my own.