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Archive for January, 2009

I was surfing the internet today, looking a few things up, and using Hyperwords to no end when a horrifying thought suddenly occurred to me…  some of you may not know about Hyperwords!  And that would be such a crime that I decided I had to make sure that it wasn’t the case.

Hyperwords is a wonderfully handy little tool in which a little menu pops up every time you highlight a word (or words) on a webpage and offers you a variety of things you can do with that word(s).  You can instantly look it up on Google or Wikipedia or Amazon or Craigslist or GoogleMaps, and Hyperwords will automatically open up a new browser window to show you the result.  You can translate it from/to a whole host of languages, or convert it to metric or imperial, and Hyperword will insert it right into the page.

You can even add new searches to Hyperwords — any webpage that has a search box can be added to your Hyperwords menu box.  When we were househunting, I added Walkscore and the county assesment page, so I could easily find additional information about any house that caught my eye on the realtor’s webpage.  Fore househunting, Hyperwords proved invaluable, but really, I use it every day anyway.  It makes searching for anything incredibly quick and easy.

To use it, you have to be using Firefox as your browser.  As far as I know, it isn’t compatable with Internet Explorer but — she chuckles to herself — you aren’t using IE anyway, are you?  (If you are, you don’t have to tell me — you don’t have to admit it to anyone — but just click here and have a little look at Firefox, eh?).

So, there you go.  If you didn’t know about it already, Hyperwords is my gift to you for today.  It’s easy to install, it’s free, and it’s a wonderful, wonderful thing once you start using it.  Enjoy!

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As much as I don’t want to think about this — and I don’t, I don’t, I don’t — it is time to look for a job.  Costs are rising, M’s hours are fluctuating, and the bills…  oh, the bills, they positively sneer at me.  I have done everything I know how to do to reduce outgoings, and yet…

I have cut down on water usage as much as I think I can — well, no, I do still take a shower every day and bathe my daughters…  perhaps that ought to be rethought.  I have taken to recording on the calendar every time we use the washer, dryer, dishwasher, and shower, just so I can can be more conscious of it.  And still, we have managed to use 100 gallons more than last month, and our bill is again five times the size of my parents’.  And I have ruthlessly slashed the weekly grocery budget …and then slashed it again.  It now sits in the mid double-digits — not so much to feed a family of four on, and harder still when allergies prevent us from buying most of the cheaper food options, and harder again when that figure covers all the non-food supplies as well.  We keep the thermostat set religiously to 65F and sit wrapped in blankets all the time — and I know the furnace needs replacing but…  but…  how could we have had a gas bill like our last one?  How? It was colossal, breathtaking, utterly devastating.  It was three-and-a-half times what my parents’ bill is — and they in a bigger house — and more on its own than I had budgeted for all our utilities for the month put together.  When it arrived, I sat in shock at the dining room table, holding it limply in my hand and waiting to cry but feeling too numb.

And so it is time to look for me to look for a job to fill this gap.  It will have to be an afternoon job, so that the girls are mostly napping at the time and less hassle for my mother to sit — and I am very, very grateful that she will take care of them for me.  It doesn’t have to pull in much, just a few hundred a month would ease the pain a bit.  The mark is set sufficiently low.  It should be no big deal.

And yet, I feel so sick at the thought.  Paralysed.  And I think no one will understand why.  Anyone in this position would know what to do — to pull up their bootstraps and get out there.  Anyone who’d balk at that is…  just plain lazy, maybe self-pitying to boot.

So I am simultaneously trying to put this into words and kicking myself in the backside.  The plain truth is that I don’t want to go out and find a job because I do believe I have a job — a critically important job — and I don’t want to give up on that (or perhaps…  I don’t want that to end).  The second plain truth is that we moved here partly so that I could continue to stay home and do that job, and that’s a hell of  a lot of effort to have all come to nothing in the end.  And the third truth is that…  I am afraid.

And that’s it — I am just afraid.  After four years out of the work force, I don’t know what work to do.  There is no logical or obvious next step.  I never ended up working in the area I got my degree in and it’s been so long since I graduated, I’d not be qualified anymore.  And though I forged a career of sorts, it was never a good fit for me nor I for it — we are neither of us clamoring to come back together again.  But most of all — most of all — my confidence is shot.  I ran screaming from my last job, overjoyed to rid of it, hiring a solicitor to fight for my right to redundancy when the project (and my role) ended while I was maternity leave and HR tried to force me into a job two levels lower.  That last role had made all my insufficiencies shine and my abilities fade to black, and I worked for a micro-managing director who ruled by intimidation and humiliation, and then threw in a good dose of sexism just for fun.  Every morning, I dreaded the day ahead and every evening I dreamed of the day I would drive away for good.  By the time I did, my professional confidence was ripped to shreds, and I’ve never sat down since and stitched it back up.  I have buried my head (and my heart) into motherhood and ignored the fact that this safe world would, inevitably, come to an end.

And so, here it is — the time has come for it to end.  And here I am, needing to find a job, but hating it — and so, so afraid.  I don’t want to look for a ‘career’ job because I don’t want this to be permanent — career jobs call for enthusiasm and commitment, and I don’t know where I’d pull that from.   And I don’t want to just go out and get a job a Starbucks because…  well, I ought to be thinking about my career, shouldn’t I?  I’ve got a degree!  I’ve got all this bloody potential!

And all I want to do is crawl into bed.  No…  under the bed.  I feel paralysed.  But those bills… still they sneer.  And they don’t relent.  This world that I wanted for my girls while they were small (or was it for me?) has come to an end.  As much as I hate the thought — and I do hate it — it’s time to bite the bullet.

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Just sat down to pay bills and balance the books and have scared myself to death.  Money is so tight that I am gasping for breathe just a wee bit at the moment.

We always knew it would be tight, we always knew it would be tight, we always knew.  I just have to keep reminding myself that.  I mean, the economy has taken everyone by surprise but, even beyond that, we did know it was going to tight being a family of four on one income.  Still, gotta be thankful that the numbers are black instead of red — even when they drop down to the very low double-digits, they are black.

I’ll just focus on breathing.  And soothe myself with a cup of tea.  …maybe minus the teabag.

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I was busy working on another post about another topic, when my mother rang, absolutely bursting with excitement to tell me the news.  She had just received the invitation to the wedding of the daughter of some old family friends and, while the wedding itself was not the news, the invitation contained a surprise that had her all in a tizzy.

I have known this girl all my life — she and my mother were fellow British expats here in the US, both married to men who came over with the Brain Drain of the 1960s.  They lived only a few houses away from each other, had their babies around the same time, and became very close and dear friends.  But where my mother ended up staying in the US permanently, my “auntie” moved first to Spain, then to Belgium, before eventually returning to the UK when her daughters were in their late teens.  It was these two girls  — both US-UK dual nationals just like me, but both very much settled in their British self-identity, unlike me — with whom I compared myself most when I was really trying to understand why I was having so much trouble with my own identity.

My mother has been debating with herself for months about whether she is going to fly over for the wedding.  It’s a long way to go for a girl she probably hasn’t actually seen in years, but I know she’d love to be there.  And I know too that she is concerned about how it would make me feel, for her to jet back to the UK — which I am missing so much– while I stay here in the cold pre-Spring with the girls.  She’s even talked about springing for the tickets for all us, and I am touched that she’d consider it, but I know it’s unlikely — and probably not a good idea anyway.

The bride-to-be has lived in London for at least 12 years and her sister and parents are in the Home Counties, so we assumed the wedding would be there.  But the invitation turned that on its head…

“Have you seen your email?!?  I sent you an email.  Have you seen it?  Have you seen where the wedding is?!?  You won’t believe it!!!  You won’t BELIEVE it!!!”  I walked over to the computer and began moving the mouse while she carried on at speed, excitedly spilling the beans before I ever got to the email.

The wedding will take place no-where near London, and not in the Home Counties either.  It won’t be taking place in the town that the bride went to school in, nor where her fiancee is from.  The wedding will take place a full three hours west of London, in a tiny Somerset village which, as far as I know, they have no connection to at all …but which I know like the back of my hand.  It is a village that I drove through on tiny back-lanes every single day for years.  It is the village that M was living in when we started dating.  I know its pubs and its corner shop, I’ve attended its church and visited its fledgling art festival.  I’ve walked all its little lanes, in the sun and the rain.

And for some reason which I didn’t actually understand, that went straight through me.  I sat looking at the emailed invitation in disbelief, as my mother carried on nattering away in my ear, and in my mind’s eye I was driving those lanes again.  Down the hill into the village, past the medieval tower on the left,  over the little stone bridge that crosses a shallow river (a creek! a creek!) which swells so alarmingly each winter, then up the rise and, there, at the T-junction, sits that field which always contains a few sheep munching happily and which belongs to the farm where the wedding will take place.  Oh yes, I know it well.

“M, do you remember?  Do you remember that farm?” I asked him later. “Can you believe that’s where they’re having the wedding?”  He looked at me only half interested and wholly uncomprehendingly.

Where?”  His wife’s yapping on exasperates him as my much as my mother’s yapping on exasperates me.

“You know!  You go down the hill, into the village…” I went though it, image by mental image.  It was as clear as if I were right there.  “And then, you know the field, opposite the T-junction?”  He shrugged.  “The one that always has the sheep in it!” I said impatiently.

“Oh yeah.  I know,” he brightened as recognition crossed his face.  And then, he added,”They do weddings there,” as if that were going to be news to me and wasn’t exactly what I had been talking about anyway.

And then he went back to eating his dinner, and I went back to mine.  And as I ate, I realised I had such a knot in my stomach that I didn’t much want my food.  It took me totally by surprise, this physical reaction to such an insignificant piece of news.  And it bewildered me.

Until…  until I realised it’s because I had been there tonight.  I had been there — so close, right there.  It was all so close.  The cowslip along the lanes, the brown sheep amongst the white…  And the being there had made the actual distance suddenly so real.   I can’t go to that wedding — that wedding that’s practically in my own backyard.  I am on the other side of the world.   And thinking about people I know going to places I know so well, when they don’t belong there and I do…  that made the distance come into sudden and sharp — and painful — focus.

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And yet, there really are so many things about Britain that drive me absolutely nuts.  Jen has nailed this one right on the head

(modified to add:  And, as so often is the case for expats, she is taking some ridiculous and ignorant flak for it)

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I was chatting with a friend today — another mother I have met whose children are the same ages as my girls — and I was describing the way E1 breastfeeds her doll.  Now, I know that might sound strange if you’re not used to the idea, but it makes sense — little girls mother their dolls the way they see their own mothers mother them.  And I breastfeed E2, so she breastfeeds her doll.

But what makes me laugh is the absolute accuracy she brings to it.  She pulls her top up, she carefully positions her doll, holds her head gently, and then…  and then…

Living in rural England, we were surrounded by farms — never more than a mile away from a flock of sheep or a herd of cows — and after a while, their ways become part of the fabric of a person’s world, much the same as the sound of birdsong or the cycles of the seasons.  One thing that had always struck me was the very bizarre expression that every ewe takes on as soon as her lambs begin their (surprisingly violent) suckling — it always registered a strange mix of resignation, pain, boredom, and duty.  It looked so odd  to me and I never really understood it.

Until, that is, I had my own babies and began to breastfeed them.  One day, soon after E1 was born, I was nursing her — trapped in my spot on the couch, slightly pained from her still-rough sucking, and bored in that quiet room with only the tick-tock from the clock in the kitchen to entertain me — when I realised I was pulling exactly the same face as all those ewes.  That particular look has nothing to do with being a sheep, per se, and everything to do with being a mother.  And it is that same bored, pained, resigned expression that E1 pulls off with absolute perfection every time she feeds her own doll so tenderly.  She is my image, mirrored in miniature.  And it is — no, honestly — hilarious to see.

So, I was telling all this to my new friend and I said, “…and  then…  and then she gets this look on her face…  Well, you know that look that sheep always get when they are feeding their lambs?…”  And from the momentary flash of bewilderment on her face, I suddenly twigged that she didn’t.

The thing is, I have told this story probably half a dozen times before, and I have never once had to explain that look.  Everyone I knew just… knew.  Until this afternoon, I’d completely forgotten that there were people — city folk! — who wouldn’t.

Toto, we’re not in Dorset anymore…!

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Today is quite a significant day and I feel I ought to write something monumental to match it, but no sooner do I start typing than all the words fall away from me.  I can’t catch them.  It’s been a year today since we moved to the US, and I don’t know what to say about it.  A year since we left England.  A year since we last saw all our dear friends.  A year — a year! — since I’ve walked through places that I can see with such clarity in my mind, that still feel so close that I should be able to just get up and go out the front door and go to them right now.  What words are for that?

It has been a hard year, there’s no doubt of that.  We’ve had a mysterious and devastating medical problem and E2’s diagnosis of multiple food allergies, which have both completely upended our lives.  We’ve had a sudden, frightening job loss and insurance problems and run up medical bills that we are still paying off.  We’ve lived most of the year stressed in a house that was being sold out from underneath us.  And we had a surprise tax bill that wiped out a huge chunk of our moving fund — the chunk that was meant to buy us furniture and bedding and all the stuff that makes a place feel like home.  I have really struggled to find a balance in my relationship with my mother, after 15 years of distant independence.  And there’s been a lot of loneliness.  And, for M, more heartbreak than either of us had known was coming.

And yet, for every set-back, there’s been an answer.  M got another job, one that suits him better.  And, as of the first of this year, we are all, at long last, completely insured.  The medical bills are being slowly paid off .   We have learned to manage our dietary restrictions, and even found a couple of safe places to eat out.  We’ve bought a house of our own which we both love.  And I’ve found a couple of friends whose company I really enjoy, and I’m working on making a few more.  And my mother has been an enormous help, an absolute force of love, provision, and care.

And though the funds for buying furniture disappeared, we’ve managed to pick up a few pieces  — a second-hand dining table and china cabinet, a family friend’s old washer and dryer.  And today, something that has really lifted my spirits: my father’s office was getting a new couch for their lobby and throwing the old one out, so he grabbed it for us and brought it round this afternoon.  I had assumed it would be…  well… probably pretty  awful — perfectly usable but not all that nice.  But to my utter surprise, it turns out that it is a low-line, sleek and modern, leather sofa of exactly the sort I would have chosen if I were paying for one.  I have spent the afternoon standing in the living room just staring at it in joyful disbelief!  And not only at the sofa itself, but at the way it has transformed the living room — which, up to now has contained only a rocking chair, an end table, and the china cabinet and, thus, not felt like a living room at all.  And that, in turn, has somewhat defined the feel of the whole house: empty living room led onto strangely unfurnished family room led onto bedrooms with mattresses on the floor…  It makes a home feel unhomey, to be so spare.  And it makes a person feel unsettled… uncommitted… transitory…

But this couch has changed that.  The room felt like…  a room.  I found myself today mentally arranging end-tables and coffee tables and area rugs and potted plants.  I feel I could invite someone around now without embarrassment and endless explanations as to why the place feels so odd.  I feel inspired to unpack the mound of moving boxes that has acted as our one design statement for the last two months.  …It’s amazing what a couch can do!

But there has been one set-back for which there has been no answer…  there is no answer here.  M’s heart is broken at being so far from his older two kids.  And no amount of house, or couch, or homeyness, or — the reason for the move — financial stability can make up for that.  And what financial stability we have achieved has all come at his expense anyway.  He hates that he gets no paid sick days, no holiday this year and a meagre five days next year; he is weary from working such long hours in this extreme weather (it was an 11 hour day on Friday, when the temperature was -20C); and despite his hours — and paycheques — being painfully short of late, he has had only two days off since Christmas weekend — and he’s on call again this weekend as well.  To be working so hard, and to be going to school at night as well, to be stressed by the erratic hours, to feel the pressure of his upcoming exams, and all while missing his kids so desperately…  Well, I know it feels like he is being kicked while he’s down.   There is only one solution for that, and I know he wants it badly.

And so, on this one-year anniversary of our arrival in the US — one year and one day since M asked me to make sure we came home someday — it feels appropriate to announce that we have decided to move back home to the UK in the next three to five years.  We’ve been talking about it on and off for a while, waffling and unsure, but once we made a firm decision, agreed on it, and put a timescale to it, it felt like a weight had been lifted off our shoulders.  It certainly felt like a weight had been lifted on mine — M, I think, was walking fully a foot off the ground.

Don’t get me wrong — this has been an amazing, changing, growing experience — and necessary to get us out of the hole we were in in the UK.  I am grateful for the gains we’ve made (and hopeful that the world economy will continue turning on its ear so we can somehow afford the move back) but they have come at a great cost that we can no longer shrug off.  When it comes time to leave the US, I know my heart will break afresh.  The truth is that I have two homelands and it will tear me up to leave this one, knowing it will be for good this time.  But M and I both know, in our hearts, that this is not right, being here is not right.  For all that has gone right with it, there is one crucial wrong that just cannot be ignored.  And that, in the end, has trumped everything.

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