Mia writes in response to this month’s theme, The Map To Where I Live
My parents loved to travel, and created the chance to do it with their work. (They’d both worked their way from humble beginnings into careers in development economics and science.) My siblings and I travelled with them. As a result, I grew up moving countries and sometimes continents every few years.
Maybe this sounds like an incredible way to grow up; I don’t know. In retrospect I think I was lucky, though at the time, of course, it was all I knew. On the one hand, I was jealous of children who never moved or travelled; they seemed to have a lot more friends and confidence than I did. I felt insecure and anguished from never having the chance to attach to people and places outside of my small nuclear family. On the rare occasions that I did make a connection, I would soon be forced to leave them behind, and most likely never saw them again.
On the other hand, I lived like a very small social anthropologist, living literally side-by-side with people of every age, class, and from almost every corner of the world. I was endlessly curious about their lives, drives, ‘loves’ and ‘hates’; all the ways in which we humans are different from each other, and in which ways we are the same.
I adored where I lived aged eleven for almost three years, in Zimbabwe. This was in the 1980s after Independence, when to many Zimbabweans the country felt more safe, strong, free, and full of possibility than it had before. It seemed a perfect environment for a young pre-teen.
When my parents’ work contract ended, I desperately tried to stay on my own, by getting myself adopted by a close friend’s missionary family. My parents were understandably not willing to let me go however, and I braced myself for another repeat of grey and angst-ridden Swedish suburbia. Sweden was my family’s “default country”: most of us had been born there, and our passports and my father’s work HQ were based there.
A year or so later, my family was supposed to move to Indonesia. At the last minute however, my father’s new work contract fell through. Somehow I ended up living on my own in Jakarta aged only fifteen because I’d already been enrolled in school there.
While living alone in a completely new culture was a shock, just like in Zimbabwe I fell in love with the country, the school, my new friends and opportunities.
Unfortunately at the end of the school year, again I was not able to find a way to stay. I was told to return to Swedish suburbia again, where I despondently stumbled my way through the remaining years of secondary school.
By the time I finally graduated school I felt exhausted, lonely, and out of sync with my peers. I was eighteen and had struggled to live on my own for three years, as well as having attended nine schools (in four education systems, on three continents). I hadn’t even begun my adult life, but I knew down to my bones what love and loss were.
Looking back I can count how by that time, I had loved and lost four times. Not in the romantic or familial sense that people usually mean when they say that; rather I had lost the sense of somewhere to call “home”: somewhere to belong; familiarities that I’d slowly built, with continuity of friendships, interests, and relative safety. A comfortable-enough place to eat dinner at night, and to sleep. Somewhere to be happy, or comforted when I was sad.
Humans tend to naturally and mostly unconsciously build healthy attachments to the place where they find themselves. As a toddler, I naturally attached to wherever I lived. As a teen however I found far greater belonging and joy in Zimbabwe and Indonesia, than in what others called my “home country”. I realised that to some extent—if there is some sense of safety, joy, and connection—it is possible to choose where (and who) to attach to.
I moved to London to study, reasoning that a degree in Development would allow me to work in the places that I loved. What I learned instead was that engineering would have been far more useful, and I was not an engineer. Nor was I cut out for the other jobs in demand where I wanted to live — English teaching, business, medicine, politics, and missionary work.
I was drawn to psychology, the arts, and journalism. But with the exception of war reporting, these careers typically required years of slow growth: building a work portfolio in a small hometown, as my parents had managed to do, and then maybe by your 40s working your way up and out—if you can and wish.
I tried it. I wanted so badly the traditional and sensible approach to work. However by the age of 29, despite my best attempts, I was no closer to the sense of connection that I yearned for. Instead, I had battled clinical depression multiple times. I felt unable to bear any longer the shadow of alienation that followed me around, and yearned for a place—any place—that truly felt like home.
With a sense of urgency, I approached the puzzle the other way around. “Maybe I should save up and move to somewhere I love first,” I thought, “and THEN try to find a local job once I’m there.” It was risky; I would have to leave behind my job, friends, fiancé, and the house he’d bought (that I had never felt at home in). But my life was in my hands, and I felt that I had no choice.
For almost one whole joyful and adventurous year, I worked as a columnist in Thailand—another country that I had always loved.
Unfortunately because of my lack of relevant experience, I couldn’t secure a long-term work and residence permit. I returned to the UK and ended up for many years in the same situation as perhaps most: in a good-enough place that would have me, doing good-enough work when I could get it.
As a Buddhist, I kept trying to be whole-heartedly present and to do my best: to choose wherever I already found myself, if I had no other choice. But my heart still wasn’t in it, and I was back fighting both bills and depression.
Until one day, after eleven years had passed, I felt like a grown butterfly looking with surprise back at my discarded cocoon. Sometimes change is simultaneously seismic and gentle. Without warning or apparent cause, it seemed that nothing and yet everything had changed. I might as well have been flung into a parallel galaxy or taken over by an alien life form, for all the familiarity that my usual, ordinary, daily life still held for me.
It was unchanged on the surface: I had the same name, address, and appearance; the same flat that I struggled to pay the rent for; the same cheap-but-nice throw pillows, old desk and kitchen utensils.
But somehow, all these things and identifiers had become void of intrinsic significance. In other words, they no longer felt familiar; I could no longer take them for granted. At the same time I could see that at their core, along with all other things—somehow, beyond material form—my life and all the people and things in it were incredibly precious; treasures.
I hadn’t taken any drugs. So by which circuitous route, I wondered, had I arrived in this brand new “place”?
Maybe it was pure chance. Or maybe everything we do adds up, even as we despair that our efforts do not appear worthwhile. Since I hadn’t been successful at choosing the big life-changing things like work, home and family, I had resigned myself to chipping away at doing my best in all the tiny day-to-day choices that I did have: my thoughts, words, and actions, as they related to the Buddhist precepts. I don’t know; other than that one day, without my doing anything differently, my life had completely and irrevocably changed in every way.
This month’s blog theme is “The Map To Where I Live”. Like a nurse seeking a vein from which to tap blood, I had spent my life seeking a map that would lead me to the river of life itself. A few times I had been lucky to fall into that river, and to find myself fully and happily submerged. Equally unpredictably though, I’d been flung back out into what felt like an unforgiving desert. Then I’d spent years feeling lost and trying to trace my way back.
But there is no “way back”. If there’s anything, it’s not a linear path but a spiral: a gradual climb, as if towards the sun. Familiar challenges return to us again and again, sometimes harder or softer. And as long as the challenges don’t kill us, the best we can do is keep trying.
Within this work, imperceptibly is something akin to progress. While this on the surface is the opposite of ‘the way back’, because the shape of life is a spiral, perhaps even the smallest step leads home: to the place that we’ve been trying so hard to return to.
‘Home’ for me was not a place after all, but a state of heart over time.