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Posts Tagged ‘Seattle’

In her how-to-be-a-writer book, Bird By Bird, the American author Anne Lamott has a section called ‘Publication – and other reasons to write’. My favourite chapter within this section is one that I hadn’t ever thought about until I read the book a decade ago: ‘Writing a present’. Lamott, who writes funny, true fiction and non-fiction, actually wrote her first published novel as a gift for her father, who was diagnosed with brain cancer. Her father didn’t live to see the finished article, but read each chapter in draft as Lamott wrote them.  The consequences, she says, were better than any publishing deal:

‘It helped my father have the best possible months before his death and the best possible death. I can actually say that it was great. Hard, and fucked six ways from Sunday, but great’.

Ever since I first read this, I’ve thought about presents that go beyond the obvious. One of my favourites is right next to me as I type this; a hand-made bookshelf given to my husband and I as a wedding present by a carpenter friend in Seattle. It always holds our preferred books, and every time I look at it, I think of its maker.

This week, I’m attempting a thank you of my own. I’m forty next month (shhhh) and feel like it’s probably time to own up to being grown up. So rather than (as well as) the parties and gratuitous celebrations, I’m running the London Marathon.

Next time, let's just buy everyone a bunch of flowers or go for dinner

(photo c/o http://www.providingnews.com)

The money I raise will go to a charity which offers residential help to little kids who are so vulnerable that even foster care isn’t an option for them. And the reason I’m doing this? To say a huge thank you to my parents, who got me through childhood in the best possible way; always securely and happily, with encouragement that stayed just the right side of supportive and never veered into pushy.

It’s not a novel, but it’s been a hard slog. Every single time I’ve gone out to train, I’ve thought about my folks; pictures from our past, things they’d say to keep me going; their faces smiling at me and not letting me give up.  And Anne Lamott’s right; having a broader reason for doing something has brought so much more to the goal. It’s not just a bloody long race; it’s a 26 (.2) mile thank you to people who’ve done the equivalent a hundred times over.

How do you say thank you? Or what’s the best gift you’ve ever received?

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For seven years, I was what I used to call an inadvertant ex-pat. I’d skipped off to the US from London because it seemed like a bit of an adventure and, you know, why not? I was unmarried, childless, in a transferable-enough industry, and the opportunity was there. A few months overseas, then back to our ‘real’ lives in England, that’s what we thought. But then one year turned into another year; Seattle turned into Dublin, and before we knew it, we’d been away for the better part of a decade.

The view from my sofa in Seattle. Look, I never said it was *all* hard...

So, although I’m not remotely Irish, I have huge empathy for the ever-increasing number of emigrants setting off for foreign climes. And in case it helps just one person a tiny bit, here’s what I learned in those years of being the foreigner:

  • Milk the overseas-ness. We got really lucky in the Pacific Northwest, a funky, laid-back region of the country where the Americans go to escape America, but avoided by the Europeans bedazzled by the promise of New York or San Francisco (or, to be fair, anywhere where it doesn’t rain as much as home). People loved to talk to us just because we weren’t American. And that American over-friendly gene? Who cares if it’s skin-deep? You don’t need everyone to be your new best friend, but finding your feet in a country full of cheerful, helpful people is actually really, really nice. I wrote about this my first year in Seattle, and I stand by it. Embrace your other-ness, let people be friendly to you, and suddenly it feels less like exile and more like a holiday.
  • Accept every invitation; and the parent-friendly version of this: Nobody made friends sitting inside. For the first six months in a new place, we made a rule that we accepted every invitation that came our way. I’ve lived overseas four times, and each time, I’ve gone to a country where I’ve known nobody. So when those random hanging-out suggestions come in, I take them. Sure, time alone’s great; but when it’s your only option, it always feels a bit more…naked. Going out, even if it’s to something you wouldn’t ordinarily choose to do, gets you out of the house, provides a focus, and, who knows? Occasionally you might even enjoy yourself. At a barbecue thrown by a gun-toting Republican, I met one of my favourite-ever Americans, still a dear friend years later. You never know what’ll happen if you’re out; but you’ve got a relatively predictable idea of what will happen if you don’t leave the house…. Once kids are part of the deal, this obviously becomes trickier to manage; so I just suggest leaving the house daily, rain or shine. Again, you never know who you’ll bump into…
  • Don’t miss the funerals. Look, you’re Irish. You don’t need an Englishwoman telling you this. But if you’re away for an extended period of time, things happen at home that you miss. I couldn’t make it back to England for half a dozen weddings and countless births, and I was really, properly sorry about that because those were major things happening to my oldest, dearest friends (and however much you make new friends in the new places, it’s not like the old friends are replaced. They still matter). But in terms of actual, long-term regrets, it’s the two funerals I didn’t get to that upset me the most. There’s no chance of a do-over if you miss a funeral; no real way of saying your respects. And nothing makes you feel further from home than sitting at your desk working whilst, hundreds or thousands of miles away, your friends are following the coffin of the person you’ll never say goodbye to.  I’m not saying, come back for the funeral of your Mum’s neighbour’s uncle’s  dentist; but if someone ever mattered enough to you in life that you’ll miss them in death, it’s time to pack your black jacket and get on a plane.
  • It’s often better and worse at the same time. That’s the mad thing about living abroad. There are things you miss so desperately you think you’ll go crazy from it. And then there are the bits that are so, so much better. We all end up with a hybrid country we’d want to live in – the ace neighbour from that life, the eternal sunshine from this one, Mum’s homecooked roast dinner in all of them. And the bugger of it is, none of us would be able to live in the same country. We’d just all have to go visit each other’s private Utopias. Which brings us back to where we started…

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