Below this painting, my latest, is the text of an email I sent to a dear friend who is currently teaching abroad and having a hard time with the experience of culture shock and dislocation. Her experience reminded me of my own similar experiences, so I was inspired to reflect a bit. First, here is this nice painting, which I value especially for the good portrait of my friend.
Hello there, dear. Well, I am so sorry that your adventure has been such a challenge. I think I mentioned when we last emailed that your experience reminds me of my time in 1988 with my first wife when we went to England together with student work permits, trying to be Thoreauvian, live in the moment, and have a grand adventure, all at a time with we were generally free of responsibilities and wanting to sow our wild oats as it were. It was just so hard. And we are talking England here, where presumably they speak English (they do, but that doesn't mean they are culturally identical with us). Culture shock is a HUGE thing, and then add on to that the terrible feeling of dislocation and abandonment and aloneness that comes with being so far from familiar scenery and people, and then add on to that all the general existential questions: is this what I am supposed to be doing with my life? Shouldn't I be getting serious and finding a job with benefits, etc. etc.? We were assailed by all these forces from pretty much the moment we walked off the plane, and, well, we did come home much earlier than we thought we were going to. Looking back now, I have incredibly fond memories of that time and that adventure, though. I learned so much, and I utterly fell in love with the country. This in spite of the fact that we lived in truly horrendous flats and struggled hard to make ends meet with the poor-paying jobs we were able to get. I certainly became a committed anglophile, and now when I go there, I feel completely at home and very happy. And I am not sure if I could have gotten to that place without going through the harder pieces.
Obviously as I have said I think that you are doing nothing here but just actually having an adventure, which is never easy and which is never really an adventure without all the hard pieces along with whatever good and exciting stuff comes your way. What makes it really an adventure is not so much meeting the world outside and experiencing new people, new cultures, etc. (although all that is really important). The more important piece is meeting parts of yourself you did not know were there. These are not always happy meetings. When I was in England and having all those hard feelings and realizing that I was utterly failing at being that guy who could go to England and just become that Thoreau guy who could live in the moment and be excited and happy all the time, well, that was a rude awakening and very hard to take. But it was really, really important for me to learn all that about myself. It set me on my true path and truly deepened me spiritually, if "spiritual" means truly knowing yourself, understanding your gifts and abilities, understanding your limitations. I am so grateful for the experience of that journey. You know, it's funny. As you get older and more understanding about yourself and more secure about your place in the world, you find yourself, believe it or not, valuing your, um, weaknesses and irrationalities above everything else. Why? It's because growing and learning are what it's all about, the real reason to be alive, and once you've gotten good at being you and contributing positively to the world, then all the ways that you're good at living, well, they get kind of boring. Been there, done that, got the T shirt, wore it out. The learning edges, the places where life is difficult and painful--man, that's were the juice is. This is why I paint. I have no idea why I am so intoxicated with watercolor, and with painting portraits and figures especially, and that's exactly why painting is so moving and powerful for me. If I understood the irrational longings that I am following in painting, then it wouldn't be anything like as interesting, and I probably wouldn't be a rabid painter. All this is to say that you are clearly learning a lot here. There is no real way you can know now what the important lessons will be in the long run. But I guarantee that the experience you are having will pay off huge dividends in your life.
You of course have already been on a grand adventure, so I imagine it must be challenging to know exactly what this one is teaching relative to what you learned from being in Florence for a year. Only you can say, of course, and as I say, only time will tell. It may be that this one is actually truly the real adventure and that Florence was warm up. I value what you said about realizing you're an adult and realizing that adulting is no easy feat. It is truly, truly hard to join the adult world, to transition into your destiny. I'm reminded of my favorite poem by Mary Oliver:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Well, the world is calling to you, dear. You are calling to yourself. Your destiny is calling to you. Sounds like your destiny will not be in teaching. Fine. Now you know that. But you have and will find yourself having gifts that the world needs, and sometimes you will be called to exercise those gifts even when you really, really, really, REALLY would rather chill out at home or whatever. (I certainly know that well right now. Honestly I am ready to retire.) I suppose life CAN be easy, especially for those with tons of resources. But who wants a life without challenge? I certainly don't. Parenting is the hardest thing I have ever done, and when Noah came into our lives there was at that time a whole bunch of news articles talking about recent studies that said that the happiest people in the world are childless couples. D'oh. Well, there's a problem with that set of studies, isn't there? Sure, if you want a life of ease, comfort, going out to whatever restaurant strikes your fancy, having a vibrant sex life whenever you want it, etc. etc., by all means, don't have kids. But then.... you wouldn't have the kids now, would you? You wouldn't have all the meaning and purpose they bring to your life. Same goes for a challenging job, same goes for the experience of living abroad. We want meaning and purpose in our lives beyond anything, even beyond happiness, and going after those goals is where the action really is.
There is zero shame in coming home whenever you're ready to. I and your friends and family will love you and listen eagerly to your stories and love to look at your photos (you are SUCH an excellent photographer), etc etc. So come home when you feel like you've done what you went to do. Don't come home just because you're crying a lot. Tears flow, feel your feelings. Let them be and let them express. Make your decision about coming home from a thoughtful place in addition to the emotional place, is what I am saying.
Anyway, blah blah. I had a lovely time playing the John Denver song at Megan's wedding today. It wore me out, and I took a good nap in the afternoon. Luckily we nailed the song--no big glitches. Yay!
Anyway, keep writing to me and letting me know how you are. I wish you could call. If you can, feel free to try.
All best, dear. Much hugs. S