Greetings from the other side

“I sing the body electric, I celebrate the me yet to come, a toast to my own reunion…”                      –Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford

Oh, to be a stranger in a strange land. My family and I sold our house, said good-bye to our jobs, our friends and family, and about 90% of our stuff and crossed the Atlantic by ship in a sort of 21st century reverse emigration from the US to Stockholm, Sweden, where my husband is from. We landed a little more than a week ago.

In earlier posts I shared how this experience has been both an adventure and a rite of passage, divided by the anthropologists into three distinct phases—a preliminal phase of ending some aspects of my old identity, a liminal phase spent in a metamorphic trans-continental boat ride, and now, this final post-liminal phase of coming out the other side a new and different person.

And new and different it has been.

We arrived in Sweden to festive pomp and circumstance after disembarking our ship in England and hopping a short flight to Stockholm. Flags, streamers, champagne, hugs, dinner in the garden, even the cherry tree blooming on cue for our arrival…it was a reception in the truest sense of the word.

Reality hit the next morning like a hammer. I was startled awake in a disorienting free fall while my mind attempted to locate my body in its mental GPS. Yes, dear, down there in that long skinny country on the top of Europe, that’s where you are. Thud.

The disorientation lingered like a hangover. Insert confused woman montage sequence here: confused woman working the coffee maker (weak coffee being grounds for deportation in my new homeland), confused woman figuring out the dishwasher, the washing machine, the shower. Each moment left me stymied.

The pinnacle of ridiculousness–at one point I stood for several minutes, swearing under my breath, trying to open the front door by turning the deadbolt lock to a variety of positions. Finally I realized that unlike my American front door, which opens in, Swedish front doors open out. Duh.

Given that I spend several weeks here each summer and even lived here many years ago, I’m surprised to be this disoriented. I see now that on those vacations I somehow skirted around many of these domestic chores. Determined to be a thoughtful house guest, last weekend I pragmatically attacked each task head on.

The remainder of the week continued to offer a real sense of seeing life with fresh eyes and beginner’s mind–not necessarily bad, just curiously different. Can I take my daughter from the schoolyard at the end of the day or do I need to tell someone? What do I need to ride the bus? What radio station should I listen to? What brand of hot dogs should I buy? (And these are just the little things.)

The confusion fog will certainly hang around while I continue to find some sense of self, or as the rite of passage model suggests, a new embodiment. There is a definite feeling of rematerialization as I go about my new life, like vapor turning into liquid, liquid turning into solid. With each day, I feel a little less like a cloud with feet.

This afternoon someone asked how I was doing. They asked if I was overwhelmed, using a phrase in Swedish which uncannily translates into “being in a state of disintegration.” I smiled and was able to reply honestly. “No, quite the opposite.”

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Spending some time at the Threshold

When my husband and I moved our family from Boston to Stockholm last week, we decided to kick the whole she-bang up a notch by getting ourselves to Europe by boat on the Queen Mary 2. A week-long break between the stress of saying good-bye and hello appealed to us both. As the granddaughter of immigrants who had made their way to Ellis Island decades ago by sea, there was the romantic symmetry of returning to Europe on a boat for me as well.

oceanMostly though, I looked forward to experiencing the passage of seven days of trans-Atlantic travel, allowing my body to really feel the geographic scope of the experience, allowing it to catch up to the emotional and spiritual journey that my heart and head already knew I was making.

During the decluttering and packing frenzy leading up to “Crossing 2013,” a friend and family member pointed out that the boat ride was the missing element to make our move a true rite of passage.

According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica in the ship’s library (satellite wi-fi being thankfully out of our budget here on the North Atlantic) rites of passage are “ceremonial events, existing in all historically known societies, that mark the passage from one social or religious status to another.”

Weddings, funerals, coming of age ceremonies, graduations – all are rites of passage designed to provide a productive outlet for the stress caused by major life changes. EB went on to say that folklorists and anthropologists break down rites of passage into three phases:

  1. the preliminal or separation phase,
  2. the liminal or transition phase, and
  3. the postliminal or reincorporation phase.

In other words, during this event one is before the threshold, at the threshold, and past the threshold. Anyone who has been on an odyssey knows how significant a threshold is, an invitation and a call to change.  Once crossed, there’s no turning back.

Apparently, all that decluttering I was doing back in Boston was the preliminal phase. In this stage, anthropologists note that we cut ties, we give things away, we fast, we mutilate our bodies with a good tattoo, piercing or even a good head shaving, as Britney Spears and the Army know full well. Getting rid of about 90% of my worldly possessions seemed to do the trick just fine, inducing a mental state probably  similar to an intense fast or mind-altering substance.

Then comes the limbo, the phase I have been in for the last 2000 or so nautical miles, literally and figuratively. This is the solitary walk in the woods, the 40 days in the desert, the vision quest. It’s the confinement before the birth, the hours during which the bride must remain hidden from her soon-to-be groom. It’s invisibility, it’s in between, it’s the period when the caterpillar becomes cellular goop  inside the chrysalis before reorganizing itself into a butterfly. In my case, that means being in between continents, in between jobs, in between communities, in between daily grinds and languages. There is no way to find solid footing here, no Facebook updates, texts or tweets in which to create a narrative to this truly plotless period of floating.

So here I am, in the doorway at the threshold. By the time you read this I’ll have taken the leap into the reincorporation stage, becoming reimbodied in my new role as just-off-the-boat immigrant, ignorant outsider, new hire, new neighbor, novice, beginner, a veritable tabula rasa.

But until then, there are waves to look at and miles to cross. Time to reflect and take in the physical and metaphysical significance of my adventure, to be freaked out by it and then to toast it with a glass of champagne. To all my fellow and future sojourners, seekers and pilgrims at the threshold, I raise my glass—cheers!

 “Come, come, whoever you are, wanderers, worshipers, lovers of leaving, ours is no caravan of despair, come, yet again, come!”

— Rumi