Tag Archives: Scotland

Land of the Free

Human beings are prone to rhetoric. We all are, no matter our culture, language, age, or sexual orientation (I just thought I’d throw that last one in there to make my blog hip and current)…

Rhetoric probably makes life feel easier. We can have a few things that we hammer into our psyches, simply by saying them repeatedly, and we don’t really need to think about them. They simply exist unquestionably; kind of like gravity.

One of my all-time favourite rhetorical clichés is, “We’re the best country in the world.” I love this one because virtually every country I’ve ever lived in, or spent appreciable time in, has a version of this one. They also have certain inner stories, based on vague cultural perceptions, which support their beliefs.

America

Americans think they live in the “Best country in the world” because they are powerful in terms of military. They also think they pretty much single-handedly won WWII and Europe is forever beholden to them. They believe that everyone in the world can’t wait to live in America because it’s … well as previously stated: It’s the best country in the world. Americans think the only reason they have enemies is because A. People are jealous of them or B. People are insane terrorists. Americans believe that all other countries either hold American democracy up as their ultimate goal, or they would do so, if their oppressive governments allowed them to. We cannot imagine that our own government possibly set any of these oppressive governments up in power … that would simply be unthinkable of any Christian nation. And first and foremost America believes it is a Christian nation. Land of the free … home of the brave …

England

The English believe they are the Best country in the world because they have, at various times, dominated some part of almost every continent. They have an ancient culture with a powerful history of assisting less developed nations in ways that will help them to be more English (although some would say: assist them in ways to serve England). And of course these nations should have eventually thank England for this assistance in becoming more English because … well, England is the Best country in the world. That nasty word Imperialism is so open to interpretation, isn’t it? The English also have high tea and fox hunts; wonderful words like cheerio (which has nothing to do with breakfast), bonnet and boot (both found on your car, not your body), and cute terms like balls-up and Bob’s your uncle. Google these terms for more information or just for entertainment. These amazing English people have also developed a way of living fairly long, healthy, and productive lives with almost no help from sunshine or vegetables.

Scotland

The Scots believe that they are, by far, the Best country in the world because they fended off the Imperialist English army starting as far back as 596 AD in the Battle of Raith (fought near what is now Kirkcaldy) and successfully beat this superpower back until 1707. Not bad for a bunch of poorly armed, passionate warriors dressed in kilts. The Scots also have gorgeous accents, haggis and, as previously mentioned, men in kilts. I could go on and on about what makes Scotland the best country in the world but I’ll leave it at that; I will add, however, that, the kilts, alone, won my vote.

Latvia

The Latvians believe that they are the Best country in the world because they have survived invasion after invasion but still speak in their mother tongue and miraculously, have kept their heritage— via ancient stories, fairy-tales, legends and songs—intact. Every year Latvians join together in a magnificent song festival and present their oral history to the world— with more than 10, 000 voices braided together—in song. In a country with a population of just over 2 million, this probably proves the Latvian love of country—and pride in history—more than anything else I can write.

Estonia

Ah … And now to Estonia. Estonians actually don’t think they are the Best country in the world; they know they are. Estonians are free thinkers who don’t join groups of any kind. The Mormons as well as the Boy Scouts—and probably Tupperware— have all but given up on the Estonians. The story is, after early missionaries came and converted as many Estonians as they could, and then left, there were mass migrations to the rivers, where the converted Estonians unbaptized themselves. Estonians are courteous and polite (hence pretending to become Christians prior to returning to their pagan ways) and they are impeccably honest, with a work ethic to die for: Thank you, Estonia, for Skype, TransferWise and the Minox camera—although technically Walter Zapp, the inventor of the Minox spy camera, was born in Latvia, but who really cares, right? Then Walter went on and produced his invention in Germany. Big deal; hardly worth mentioning … Walter did, however, patent his subminiature camera in Estonia. So there you go. It’s yet another claim to fame for Estonia.

Here’s the oddest part of all of this, though: Each country thinks that behind closed doors, everyone else has only the highest regard for them and down deep inside everyone wants to be them.

My daughter Jessica dated a young Estonian man while we were living in Latvia. He came for a visit one weekend and met the family. After a lovely visit he shared this with Jessica as though it was hard for him to admit: “Estonians make fun of Latvians all the time; but I actually really like your stepfather.” To which Jessica laughed and casually replied, “Yeah Latvians make fun of Estonians, all the time, too.”

The young man looked at Jessie, in wide-eyed bewilderment and muttered, “Wow, really? Seriously?” He then sat silently dumbfounded for some time.

For several months after this event our family laughed when we discussed this naïve young man’s reaction to having his world-view shifted. He believed his We’re the best country in the world rhetoric so strongly that he couldn’t imagine anyone making fun of his peeps. He was equally sure that the superior Estonians were making fun of others because these non-Estonians actually were inferior. He was surprised to meet a highly educated, friendly, well travelled Latvian among the dim-witted, poorly groomed, unfriendly folks that he was certain inhabited the rest of the country.

It was with a smile and over many years that I came to understand: There is no Best country in the world. It simply doesn’t exist. It can’t objectively exist.

There are different countries and cultures with different histories— all of them rich, wonderful, sad and tragic. None of them deserve to be demeaned or the punch lines to anyone’s jokes. We all have our strong points and we all need to move forward together—especially now—with open hearts, into this new frontier …

When I arrived in Estonia in 1995, I was certain that I was going to love my adventures but that I would probably be called upon to give up some of my freedoms. I didn’t even know that I thought this until I was speaking to my late mother-in-law, Julie, who asked, “Why on earth would anyone want to leave the freest country in the world to move to a Soviet one?” And my liberal, broadminded, well-intentioned reply was, “It’s just the price one pays to travel and have new experiences.” (Insert shudder) It didn’t cross my mind to ask, “What exactly does freedom mean,” or, “What makes America the freest or best country in the world?” America simply was the freest and best country in the world. It was like gravity; it was beyond question.

After several months in Estonia I came to a shocking conclusion: Estonia was actually the freest country in the world. Hands down. Maybe it was even the best …

We were permitted to drink a beer on the streets or while sitting in the park, any time we wanted to do so. We could sunbathe without clothes—by the riverbank that ran through the middle of town, or sitting in our tall windows—shamelessly facing the sun, and the whole neighbourhood. No one batted an eye; no one even noticed. We could smoke cigarettes in restaurants and train stations. We had good national healthcare. Although we were in a university town, there were no curfews or bans on noise after certain hours. Fireworks were legal and—it turned out—smashing Champaign bottles all over the town on New Year’s Eve was perfectly acceptable.

Initially my new life—sans almost all restrictions, rules and regulations—was spectacular. I loved sipping a cold beer in the park on a warm afternoon. I enjoyed an occasional cigarette, when I wanted one, not when I was in a legal or designated area. I loved feeling the hot sun on my entire body, watching myself turn brown as a berry. Everywhere. This was living! This was freedom.

I was extremely uneasy, however, when I walked across the snow covered Town Square on New Years day, 1996, after having spent New Years Eve celebrating there with hundred’s of others, including more than a fair share of students from the university. The snow was splattered with blood in many places and more than one large spot was actually melted by what must have been a puddle of blood. What had seemed, the night before, like an organized smashing of bottles—which I’d assumed was some customary ritual managed and carefully carried out by some responsible folks (yeah, what was I thinking?)—had actually been a chaotic attempt, by a bunch of drunks, to make a lot of noise. And there had been injuries. Some serious injuries.

After careful thought and consideration I decided to avoid gatherings of students because … well … students were notoriously irresponsible.

I still, however, didn’t see this as a societal problem.

Then one beautiful autumn day, as I sat in the park reading a book, a man walked by me. He was drinking from a bottle—which was perfectly legal—and seemed to be weaving a bit. Suddenly he stopped directly next to me and vomited, splashing the park bench, my book, and me.

And that’s when I formulated the question: What exactly is freedom?

Is allowing everyone the right to drink in public places freedom, when some of us can’t relax in the park without fear of being vomited on? I was responsible. I never drank more than one beer and most definitely didn’t puke on people. But that was me; the man in the park lived by different beliefs and standards than I did. He needed restrictions and rules to keep him in line. I needed those rules to keep me safe from his bodily fluids.

Societies need rules, laws and regulations to guide—and protect the majority of us from—the lowest common denominator. That’s how societies have always worked.

When we say: We have the freest country in the world, that’s meaningless rhetoric. And it’s also literally impossible to do. We don’t want a completely free country: A society where anything goes; where people can vomit on you or smash bottles into your head … I’m pretty certain that this was actually never anyone’s goal.

Estonian laws began changing quickly. Within that year, all smoking was banned; even in the parks. Alcohol was not allowed in public places and various other laws restricted behaviour.

I think most of us were glad to watch the changes happen.

Rather than seeing new legislation and policies as restrictive and stealing our freedom, we saw Estonia as growing and expanding. The government was keeping us safe and allowing us to live in harmony. Although I don’t hold Estonia up as the Best country in the world—since no such country exists—they have my respect and admiration for a job very well done.

America is at a crossroads right now—as is the rest of the world—with some of our issues being exclusively ours, while others we share with our planet. We have some major questions to answer: How important is climate change, gun control, women’s rights to govern their own healthcare and bodies, a cohesive national healthcare system, equal pay for equal jobs, ending corporate control of our government and thereby us, ending racism and all discrimination? How do we see our future? Who are we as a nation?

Is being a Christian nation quite possibly just more of our meaningless rhetoric?

Sadly the most prominent Christian belief of many Americans isn’t “Do unto others.” Nor is it, “Helping the least of these, my brethren…” and most definitely it isn’t “Judge not lest ye be judged.” The predominate Christian belief of many seems to be this: The world is coming to an end. So arm up, batten down the hatches and let it all go to hell in a hand basket … oh yeah, and hope that you personally, cut the mustard and wake up on the right side of the pearly gates. Screw everyone who doesn’t buy your brand of religion because … hey … they’re all goners anyway and (and this one saddens me the most) to hell with this sinful planet—our beautiful home with all of its wonder, abundance, promise and bliss has been diminished to a waiting room for someplace that quite possibly exists only in ancient myths and the human mind … but, regardless, to hell with it all.

Question the rhetoric! We have time to turn this train around but not by following the old models. We must question everything and move forward in a new direction.

Let’s do it. Let’s move out of the box and make a pact to become the best plant in the galaxy! Let’s become the land of the responsible and the loving home to all life and humanity regardless of religion, colour or culture.

We can do it. In fact, it’s way more possible than becoming the freest country in the world… And look how long we’ve been trying to nail that one.

Signing off from my little corner of Planet Earth here in UK.

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I’ve Been Gone For A While But Wait Until You Hear Why…

Since my last blog I received my UK visa!

Wait.

Even with that exclamation mark this sentence doesn’t begin to reflect the monumental nature of the event: Receiving my UK visa …. And  I will not stoop to a double exclamation mark. I have way too many English Majors in my life, who keep tabs on me, for such faux pas….

Perhaps my blogs should come with a disclaimer; something along the lines of the one on my rearview mirror: Images in print appear much smaller than in my reality!

Okay let’s start over.

In April of this year, I received a UK visa after Egils and I worked towards that end for 3 1/2  long years of our lives.  UK law requires that anyone coming from beyond the European Union borders (that would be me) must have a sponsor (that would be Egils) who can adequately (financially) support him/herself as well as the person being sponsored. The UK government is unaware that people coming from the former Soviet countries (namely: Egils and I) can live on air, so the amount of financial stability that they required was um… ridiculous, by our standards.

Screen goes wavy then white and we fade into a backstory…. I’ve been dabbling in video recently.

It’s July, 2009, I’ve lived in Latvia for almost a decade with my Latvian partner, Egils. Both of us received slashes in our, already pathetic, salaries prior to all paychecks ending, a few months ago. We have gone through most of our savings. Every day one of our friends or associates leaves Latvia. The grocery stores’ supplies are dwindling. My close American friend of more than 40 years, Bette, says gently, during a Skype talk, “You have to leave. You don’t really have a choice. I’ll help you, but you must go. Now.”

I’ve been denying this obvious fact for almost a year. But within this moment, I know she’s right. We must leave.

I apply for a UK visa, based on what’s left of our paltry savings,  123 online job applications that Egils has submitted for jobs in UK, and a heartfelt plea to return to the land of my great-grandparents.

A week later I receive my visa application back with a “WTF Woman! You can’t seriously think we’re going to let you reenter the sacred land that your ancestors  abandoned 100 years ago, based on a few bucks in an Eastern European bank account and some auto-response replies to online job applications!”

The official wording is “Visa Denied” but in retrospect, I totally know what they wanted to say.

We spend less than a month packing our small car, renting our home, and finding keepers for our cats, before fleeing our home in Latvia, in August, and arriving in Scotland one week later.

Egils enters the UK workforce on the bottom rung of the ladder, trying to make enough money to sponsor me. His masters degree, rich work experience,  fluency in multiple languages, and strong work ethic are of almost no value. He has an accent. He’s unfamiliar with local culture and traditions. He’s come here, uninvited, from a poverty stricken country, at a time when local people are scrambling for the few remaining jobs in the midst of their own recession.

He takes any and every job that comes his way: he works with disabled people, hangs banners over kiosks, scrapes old signage off walls and applies new, drives people to and from the airports…. I help when I can but have no legal rights to work without a visa.

Our time together, in Scotland, is spent in a rented room with the Syme family in a small village in Stirlingshire—the gateway to The Highlands. The Symes become our Scottish family. On good days they are our safety net; on bad days, our guardian angels.

In spite of the Syme family’s boundless hospitality and our endless efforts to make money, I am forced to leave UK 6 months after we arrive because I am an American without a UK visa.

This  6-months-in-UK-6-months-in-USA  requirement continues for 3 1/2 years. Ultimately Egils and I live separately for more than 2  of those 3 1/2 years—him working odd jobs and looking for full-time employment in UK, while I live in the USA with my dear friend Bette ( yes, we are still best friends!) and her husband, Mike.

This gave me more than 2 years of time in the USA to visit with my adult children: Morgan, Debra, Jonathan and Jessica, as well as my grand-babies. I had months  with my brother Tim, his wife and my dear friend, Mia, and their clan—more time than we’ve ever shared in our adult incarnation; what a blessing! I had time with my dear sisters Jeannine and Heather and their clans. I traveled from Coudersport, PA—where I spent time time with my physically and mentally declining mother and her amazing, young-at-heart, sisters—to Cocoa Beach, Florida where I reunited with my dear friend and boarding school roommate, Brenda (and her man, Bert). Brenda and I also cruised to Alaska, walked the ship’s deck in the (nearly) midnight sun and witnessed the birth of an otter on an iceberg.

Many aspects of these past 3 years were miraculous— rewarding in so many ways and on so many levels of my being…. But they were also years of separation from my beloved partner; they were years of incredible insecurity; they were times of learning the true meaning of faith. They were times that taught us the essence of what it means to be an immigrant: A person with many homes, while lacking a real home. They were times that challenged me—challenged us—to the core.

I have many  other visas and each picture tells a story: I’m over-the-moon to be going to Russia and experience a country I never thought I’d see, in early 1993…. I’m trying to smile, as I have finally succeeded in getting an Estonian visa, but my eyes are bloodshot. It is the week my father died … I have a lopsided smile in my next Estonian visa. I came straight from the dentist’s office with a numb, paralyzed jaw (but the appointment with the photographer had been hard to get)… I’m smiling like I have a secret in my first Latvian Visa. I am in those first days of new love with my partner….

My UK visa picture is quite different from any of the others. I am looking pleadingly, at the camera. I look exhausted and like I’ve been crying for years… I’ve been through heart failure. I’ve been away from my man for… it feels like forever. I’ve been living on the edge for way too long….

There were good times in these past 3 1/2 years. In fact there were great times that I wouldn’t exchange for anything. But there were some godawful, I-can’t-believe-I-lived-through-them times as well.

But now they live only as memories.

Because…

I got my UK visa!!

Now let me address the above statement: I’ve been dabbling in video recently…

After 1 & 1/2 years of working on a video, I’ve now completed it and posted it on YouTube! I am pleased and honored to share this with you.

In Search of Home: A photographic essay of our journey from Eastern Europe to Scotland. I really hope you’ll enjoy it and pass it along to others.

http://youtu.be/Ov8nyg8g8CY

I have also pretty much set up my online store where, should anyone desire to own prints of—or products containing—some of my best photos, just click below and voilà!

http://www.cafepress.com/BonnyScotland

So that’s what I’ve been up to since January and my last post (shame on me!). I hope to be blogging more regularly now that I have ended my regular commute between USA and UK.

For now, I’m nestled back in my wee village in the foothills (or hellfits as it sounds when the Scots refer to them) of the Ochils.

I will end this blog with a few pictures I took this week on the moor. Sheriffmuir, to be exact.

Gorse on the side of a hill

The gorse is blooming; the heather is next!

Cemetery

An amazingly colorful cemetery as I entered the road up to the moor …

Ewe and Lamb

Once on the moor, the ewes and lambs welcomed me!

Sheep scratching

Snow capped mountains, blue skies, sheep scratching their necks. Life is good on the moors

Is Connected the New Alone?

I was raised in an uber Christian family, in the 1950’s—that’s probably redundant since most American Christian families of that era resided in zealotsville. Biblical stories, superstitions and rhetoric—carefully explaining right from wrong, unsoiled from tainted, good from evil—were the glue of our society.  They informed the monsters under our beds and the fairies in our gardens; collectively they were the cornerstones of our psyches as we grew and flourished in our black and white world.

 It seems that part of this legacy is questioning change—forever judging new ideas and technologies, as good or evil. Then again questioning change may simply be inherent to humanity…

 2,400 years ago Plato said, “Writing is all very well and good, but it’s going to destroy people’s memories,” as reading and writing moved into the mainstream. Fact: People no longer memorize lengthy verses of poetry or hours of folklore. Where would we be, however, if literacy were not a daily part of life?

 Later in the 18th century, Alexander Pope said: “If man was meant to fly, God would have given him wings.” I suppose if one determines that our world should look precisely as it did on the 7th day of creation, there is some logic in this statement—at least as much logic as there is in the 7 day creation story.

 Within my lifetime, my grandmother—a woman well worth quoting—warned, “Television will rot your brains,” as well as, “Food should never be stored in plastic!” The jury remains out on the TV warning. And while my sister thinks the latter admonition may have been more related to our mother being a Tupperware dealer than intuition, current studies show plastic to be a bad choice for food storage, leading me to believe: It is important to question innovations.

 My point is, there exists this dichotomy: It’s as human to question and resist innovative thought and technologies, as it is to pursue them. They are the forbidden fruit—equally repellent and irresistible—and we are the Garden of Eden’s children. The challenge: We can’t really assess the forbidden fruits—or put them in their proper place within our lives or society—until we’ve tried them.

 You can call me Eve; it’s fine.

 So my burning question is this: Can we move forward into places we’ve never been before—using (even abusing) these amazing new tools and toys—and find a middle of the road prior to unraveling some of the essential threads of the fabric of society?

 That’s what my blog is about: The wireless, mind-boggling, rapidly evolving, high-tech, world we now live in and the many ways that it has transformed our social landscape—even the way we express ourselves in print IMHO.

Here we are, living in a world where massive information—more than we will absorb in a lifetime—is as far away as our Google access; a world where we can reach out and touch someone 24/7 (thank you AT&T for teaching us that a voice on the phone is actually touching someone!) and a world which—in terms of communication—is now compressed into the size of a neighborhood: A beautiful, ethnically diverse community of Planet Earth citizens.

In so many ways this is a great thing!

There are very few arguments these days. If people disagree, on virtually any subject under the sun—and they happen to be face to face—one swift motion of the left hand produces a smart phone, while the right hand is poised to push buttons, before the phone is visible; Google is a touch away; the argument is resolved.

Information propagation is the new duel—the smart phone the new gun.

And that’s a good thing, for the most part. I think…

But it seems that with the end of arguing about small issues or beliefs we now feel compelled to argue about larger and more personal issues: ideologies, politics and religious beliefs to name a few—often not face to face but remotely, electronically. And I can’t help but wonder if this impersonal communication might have contributed to the division and polarization we’ve watched rapidly increase in our world in recent years. For years now there has been so little eye contact… so few shaky, insecure voices… almost no tired faces, tears, or sighs of exasperation within dialogues. Instead, there have been words on screens and icons expressing the emotions we chose to share.

When did we come to accept the absence of discussion just for the sake of connection and broadening our understanding of one another, choosing sides and becoming adversaries, instead?

After scrubbing and sanitizing our homes and bodies, did we follow suit with our relationships?

I miss casualness. I miss perspiration and laughter and honesty.

In the 70’s, when two or more people gathered together and hung out talking, it was called rapping. There were exchanges of thoughts, beliefs and ideas. There were sometimes heated arguments; there was sharing. Frequently there was too much wine and often the rooms were thick with incense and various types of smoke (Sorry: TMI). The rooms buzzed with energy and emotion but not electronic devices.

I miss the smell of incense and too much wine… I miss that world of smell and touch, of watching people blush and flirt by batting eyelashes…

Chatting is the new rapping. Sigh

The smiley and frownie faces are the new expressions of joy and sorrow in our relationships. Acronyms are the new clichés. Blogging is the new storytelling…

Please understand that I’m not opposed to the new technologies. I am, right now, on my laptop, writing—assisting my of-a-certain-age-post-menopausal brain by fact checking on Google.

Wait a sec… I want to make a comment on my Face Book… My daughter out in Virginia is such a stitch… I love her status updates…

Okay, I’m back.

When I moved to Estonia in 1995, I regularly received 600 dollar a month phone bills for scratchy, barely audible phone conversations with loved ones—which frequently ended in a disconnection. I’m over-the-moon that I can now summon my granddaughter in England to my computer screen in Scotland and tell her how nice she looks in her new uniform before she goes off to school. I love exchanging pictures of our latest adventures with my other kids in the States on the same day of the events.

But every time I sit in a restaurant and watch the smart phones emerge from pockets, or drive in cars where the passengers are working on their iPads or listening to their iPods broadcasting their favorite music or eBook while drivers chat away on their hands free, I miss rapping.

Where has this preoccupation with our technologies brought us?

After learning how to emotionally disconnect from the peers in our cars, was it easier to disconnect from those people? You know who those people are: The less fortunate, the elderly, the dark skinned or light skinned, the immigrants, the sickly… Remember them—the ones that aren’t us? At least not yet…

And where will this new type of electronic connection take the next generation?

Will it be easier to disconnect from global warming and the havoc it’s wreaking on our planet, assuming it’s not in our state? Will wars, poverty and disease be diminished to chats and bulletin boards—or maybe reality TV show—allowing us to ingest juicy bits of carefully selected information about those people?

Okay, I’m going to the dark side… I feel it…

So we continue traveling this road—where technology leaps to new heights daily. We dash blindly forward—hoping to catch up—struggling with the financial burden of doing so.

We upgrade our Smart Phones and laptops; we buy iPads, iPods and Kindles. It’s how we stay current. It’s how we stay connected with one another—at best with a live (albeit fuzzy) image on the screen, but more often through words punctuated by smiley faces with no lines or creases around their mouths and missing the twinkle that lives in a human eye.  We’ve exchanged a cute bear hug for the feeling of flesh and muscle around our shoulders and breath on our necks. We call people we’ve never met our friends. And when we want to end one of these friendships we simply un-friend the offending party with a swish and few taps of our finger. These ex-friends seldom notice our absence because their friends are so abundant that losing one here and there generally goes unnoticed.

Strangers are the new friends. They’re plentiful and expendable.

Why do I miss the pain of breaking up and the joy of reconciliation? That’s just weird. WTF?

Hold on, my daughter in England just came on Skype and I need to set up a good time to see my grandbaby… She’s 3 and growing like a weed… You should hear her little British accent. OMG talk about cute!

Okay, I’m back.

I want this blog to be interactive. I want feedback. I want your assistance. I love this technology. I hate this technology. The Buddha spoke of finding the middle path—the middle of the road. I want to find the middle of this super highway. But navigating is hard when it’s all virgin territory—with no maps or even road signs. Can we find the best of both worlds: A way to enjoy remote connections and limitless information without losing intimacy?

Or will we continue blindly rushing forward—cementing our connection to the world, while becoming increasingly isolated?

Is this new technology the monster under our bed? Is it Armageddon? Or is it the fairies dancing in our garden? …or is it simply a neutral offering created by our collective intelligence—a gift from the universe—awaiting our response? Might we be the judge and jury deciding whether it’s a blessing or a curse, good or evil, black or white. What will we decide? Will we find a balance? How? What are your thoughts?

This is Holly Morrison signing off with an LOL

[On the old planet that meant lots of love—and so it does tonight!]

Magic, Miracles and Gifts From Those Who Came Before

A warning to all who know me or have read prior blogs: I’m going to break redundant for just a few sentences—until the end of the italicized writing— in order to bring any new readers up to snuff.

I was widowed in 1993.

Two years after my husband’s death I packed up my two youngest children and moved to Europe, where I raised them in the small countries of Estonia and Latvia. I was financially ruined, after my husband’s death, but was able to scrape enough money together to make a decent life for my daughters and myself in North Eastern Europe. I bought a small home for cash and we had affordable medical care. It was a safe, clean environment in which to raise my little girls. My older children remained in the USA.  In 1999 I met a wonderful man named Egils and we joined together to create a family and lived in Latvia.

Flash-forward: After the economic collapse of Latvia, in 2009, we moved to Scotland where we now live. Okay that’s it for the backstory of my blog today.

In 2006, while living in Latvia, I rented a fisherman’s cottage in Anstruther, Scotland, with friends. We spent two weeks living by the sea in The Kingdom of Fife, touring castles, walking along the rocky coast, eating fish and chips and sampling whiskey. In the evenings I watched, mesmerized, as the tide slipped into the village—seeping up the narrow cobbled alleyways that ran between old stone houses—on the sea side of the village. One night I sat up most of the night listening to the wind whistle and howl as it drove the beating rain against the old windowpanes of our cottage. I had been in love with Scotland, prior to that visit. From that time forward, however, I was consumed by a longing to return. Referring to my longing as homesickness sounded pretentious, even to me; but it was the only word I knew that came close to describing the aching I felt—when I thought of my time spent in the beautiful Kingdom of Fife—and my burning desire to return.

That same year, after my time spent in Scotland, I began researching my ancestry on my father’s mother’s side. Rachel Scott, my father’s mother, had offered me unconditional love all of my life until her death in 1973, just three months before the birth of my first child. I adored my grandmother, as did my brother and sisters; we called her Noonie.

Noonie taught me how and where to plant pansies, how to grow hearty vegetables and how to knead and bake bread. She’d wiped my tears, rubbed my sore muscles with Black Salve (an herbal concoction her mother had taught her to make) and tucked my body into bed with satin comforters—which smelled like her old cedar chest—every night I slept under her roof.  She had endlessly tended, worried and fussed over me all of my childhood, but she seldom spoke of her parents. I knew that she was very close to both of them—especially her father— and that they’d come from Scotland; beyond that I knew nothing. I certainly didn’t know that my great grandfather—Noonie’s father—was raised in the small town of East Wemyss, only minutes from Anstruther, in The Kingdom of Fife, where I had fallen so deeply in love with Scotland. I’m not sure my grandmother even knew the name of this small village, since her father referred to his younger life as having been spent in Edinburgh—no doubt because it was the nearest large city.  When I found the exact farm where my ancestors had worked as laborers, I realized that I had driven within a mile of that farm and their cottages, several times while staying in Anstruther.

This synchronicity came at the beginning of my journey into my genealogy. There were more to follow.

Within a few months of researching, I learned that my great-great grandmother, Agnes Scott (Noonie’s grandmother), had been widowed at a young age and moved with two of her children to America—one of whom was John Scott, Noonie’s father—leaving the rest of her grown children in Scotland.  The fact that I had been widowed at a young age and had moved with my two younger children to Europe, leaving my adult children in USA, instantly created a bond between Agnes and me.

My nephew, David Cosentino, and I worked obsessively on this particular branch of our family tree, for several months in 2006.

Gradually my ancestors became more than names in an old bible in the attic. In particular my great-great grandmother: Agnes was a real woman who’d loved and lost her husband, William, as I had lost my husband, John. Her children had lost their father as had mine. Agnes left her homeland with little more than her clothes, two of her children and the wish to survive, exactly as I had. This small family left their homeland not knowing if or when they would see the rest of their family and loved ones again. In this sense our realities differed greatly; I knew I would frequently see my older children, family, and friends in my homeland. I could only imagine Agnes’s pain and insecurity with this additional burden. But in many of the fundamental ways Agnes and I were very similar. We buried a husband and father who was too young to die. We made the hard and drastic decision to leave our homeland, as widows, leaving our grown children and loved ones behind, to create a better life. We survived.

In 2009, when Latvia collapsed my partner, Egils, and I headed west landing in Scotland. I hadn’t thought much about my great-great grandmother Agnes—and our paralleling lives—for almost 3 years. David had been busy working and raising a young family; I’d been trying to survive financially… With neither of us nudging the other forward, the old stories lay silently tucked away in attics, drawers, and old archives.

I didn’t pursue researching my ancestry, here in Scotland, for the next two years. My life was busy with days crammed full of projects.

Then last year, while I was in the States, my mother broke her hip and was confined to a nursing home for what promised to be an indefinite period of time. My brother, Tim, and I began the laborious process of sorting through my mother’s home: The same homestead where my beloved grandmother had lived and raised her family; the home where my parents lived in their later life and where—after my father’s death in 1998—my mother had remained and grown old. This home has always been a reminder of the happiest memories of my childhood and my connection with those who have gone before me. It has always been magical…

As I sifted through mountains of paperwork including old photographs, documents, bills, and personal letters (my mom saved virtually everything she touched) my eyes fell upon something interesting: A document printed on cardstock, created near the end of the 19th century, somewhere in Scotland. I read it slowly:

“In Affectionate Remembrance

 of

Janet Scott,

Aged 21 Years,

Who departed this life, 1st of January, 1874.”

My body went cold. Janet Scott was a daughter of Agnes and William. It wasn’t the fact that Janet had died that started my hands shaking; Janet would have died many years prior to 2012. It was the date on which Janet died that disturbed me. This document revealed something I had not known before that moment: Barely six months before, William, her husband died, Agnes had lost her daughter, Janet! Sitting in the living room of the house where my Noonie had kept me tightly tucked beneath her wing throughout my childhood, I thought of Agnes—Noonie’s grandmother—and she was once again close to me. Her story was unfolding: Now I knew that she had not only lost her husband, William, but also a daughter in that fateful year, shortly before deciding to migrate to America.

Found in my mother's home in summer of 2012: Janet's Death Notice

Janet’s Scott’s death notice: found among the piles of papers in my mother’s home last summer. The death was not shocking; the dates were.

When I returned to Scotland in July 2012, I was overwhelmed with projects: A new Internet store to organize and build, a new lifestyle to construct (after having CHF as a part of my life, I now swim 40 minutes a day, eat very differently and require more sleep). Consequently my genealogy was once again on a back burner.

But, even without any direct attention aimed at Agnes and the Scott branch of my family tree, they entered my consciousness from time to time—like each time I traveled up to Fife or baked bread or saw a movie set here in Scotland in the late 1800’s…

Then on September 3rd David sent me a picture of a middle aged man standing next to a monument.

Monument dedicated to William, Catherine, Janet, and Margaret Scott

This is my great grandfather, John Scott, standing next to a monument erected to his father William and three sisters: Catherine, Janet and Margaret.

The email read: Here’s one [a picture] of John Scott. The monument refers to William Scott who was his father. Janet is mentioned here (the one from the death notice [that I’d found last summer at my mother’s house]) – she would have been John’s sister. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could track this down and take a pic today? 😉

I loved the picture. I was, however, confused as to how Dave could think this picture was from Scotland. John Scott left Scotland with his mother, Agnes and his sister Rachel in 1874 when he was 19 years old. How could this monument to his father and sister, Janet, be in Scotland, with him standing next to it, as a middle aged man?

I wrote back to David:

Dave I’m 90 percent sure this [monument] is in USA. It was erected by Thomas and Rachel Scott Blythe in loving memory of their father… my guess is they erected this in the States in memory of their father William and sisters who had died here in the old country.

Holly 

But there was more to this monument than just the mystery of “where in the world was it?” This monument clearly stated that Agnes had lost three of her daughters. Catherine had died in 1870, Janet in 1874, and Margaret had passed in 1877; three years after Agnes had migrated to America. All of the girls were in their 20’s.  I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. The sorrow that I felt for my great-great grandmother was now physical—my stomach was in knots. After a bit of research I learned that there had been a massive epidemic of Scarlet Fever in Scotland, between 1874 and 1875 that had killed 11,000 Scots. This explained both William’s and Janet’s deaths; the other two sister’s deaths remained a mystery. I told myself that this had happened many years ago; it was not an uncommon scenario in the 19th century and my visceral emotional reaction was illogical if not ridiculous. But I couldn’t curb my feelings and I continued struggling with this overwhelming sense of grief.

Egils, sensing my sadness, and always up for an adventure, suddenly said, “I get off work at 5. Why don’t we head up to East Wemyss and see if there is a cemetery or church that might have a trace of the William Scotts?”

It was a brilliant plan. Getting out of the house and looking for some tangible evidence of my ancestors would occupy my mind with something other than the Scarlet Fever epidemic of the 1870’s and the pain and suffering of my people.

I shot off a message to David:

I just got a bee in my bonnet. Egils and I are driving up to East Wemyss after work and a quick swim and going to the cemetery. 

H

To which David—shocked and excited by the abruptly hatched plan—wrote back simply:

Well, [removed expletive]. You go! 🙂

I honestly feel that my ancestors—at this point, if not prior—actively stepped in and took the reins…

We left our village, intending to take a quick swim before starting the hour drive to East Wemyss. Swimming is a daily routine, conducted at specific times; we very seldom reschedule.

As we headed out, however, Egils said, “We have plenty of time before the pool closes; let’s go to East Wemyss first.” This was the first touch of destiny: Had we gone swimming first, we would have gotten caught in a massive thunderstorm that was, unbeknownst to us, heading for East Wemyss. Heavy rains would have undoubtedly made walking the cemetery impossible.

We arrived in East Wemyss just after 6:00 to sunny skies, parked our car in front of the only church we could see, on Main Road. Apparently there is a small cemetery in the back of the church but for some reason we didn’t even look there. Instead, I asked a passerby if there was a main cemetery. (In hindsight, I realized how out of character this was for us. This church cemetery would have been the logical place to bury people in the 19th century. But again, if we’d spent any time looking through that cemetery, we’d have gotten caught in the coming storm.)

We were told that if we followed the same road a short while we would find a large cemetery on our right. We got back in the car and drove maybe a half-mile to the enormous MacDuff Cemetery, sandwiched between the Main Road and the Firth of Fourth (just this side of the North Sea). From the time we left our village our world seemed a bit surreal, but from this point on I recall feeling like a character in a play—going through the motions of a prewritten script.

We parked the car in a parking lot at the far end of the cemetery, not realizing that we could drive into the cemetery and began walking back towards town through thousands of stone markers and monuments. If we’d driven on the small roads that, we later realized, ran through the cemetery we’d never have ended up where we did. It’s hard to imagine that we didn’t notice the roads and drive them… It simply wasn’t part of the script, I suppose.

We arrived at MacDuff Cemetery and immediately felt slightly deflated. The size of the cemetery was daunting. The old and new stones and monuments stood side-by-side and the weather was looking dodgy. But something made us move forward…

As we walked slowly across the grounds, we searched for old stones or markers of the type that might have been placed by a poor family in the late 1800’s. We quickly realized, to our dismay that most of the older markers and stones had worn down too badly to read.

Initially I’d hoped that the cemetery might be divided into sections according to eras. It was quickly apparent, however, that the very old and fairly new (1850-1960’s) markers stood side by side.  Logically there was little room to hope we’d find anything, but for some inexplicable reason we continued walking forward through the center of the massive cemetery, slightly veering left, for no reason that we were aware of. We did not meander; we walked in only one direction, through the grass, making our own route towards something, or—more likely, it seemed—towards nothing at all.

We both quickly agreed that the calm walk along the seaside was probably more of a reason to be there than any realistic hope of finding anything.

After perhaps 10-15 minutes of wandering, we realized that a storm was coming in off the sea. Clearly understanding the improbability of ever finding evidence of William, Janet, Margaret and Catherine Scott in this beautiful, massive, maze of a cemetery, Egils (who was walking slightly ahead of me) turned around and said, “Maybe somewhere there’s a directory of names and where people are buried.” And then he reiterated what we’d already recognized, “Because even if there is a marker somewhere, most of the really old ones that are close to the ground are not readable…”

I knew, at this point, that he was tired after a long day’s work and the importance of our journey was probably just getting out of the house and spending some time together.

“Yeah, and there may not even be a marker if they were as poor as I think,” I added, as I prepared to turn around and return to the car.

Then suddenly I stopped in mid turn-around and said, “You know we had this exact same sense when we were looking for Stella. We knew there was a good chance that Stella was killed in the war or had died afterwards or had married and changed her name. We had every reason to doubt that we’d find her and then we did. Just like that: There she was!”

(Note: Stella was a Latvian woman who had disappeared pre WWII. Against insurmountable odds, after years of searching through old Soviet archives and just as we were about to give up the search we found her.)

It restored my faith a bit to remember how I felt when—against all probability, feeling deflated and helpless—Stella seemed to materialize in front of our eyes.

I began walking towards Egils, again, but after only two or three steps forward, I had to step around a monument just to my left. I looked at it and read “William Scott.”

I was mentally unable to process what I was seeing.

Monument at MacDuff Cemetery

This caught my eye but was too shocking to completely process, mentally.

When I continued reading, my first thought was, “Huh… this stone is full of names exactly like my family’s. Those Scotts really liked those particular names!”

Holly at monument in East Wemyss Cemetery

This is seconds after stumbling across the monument that I was “90 percent certain” was in the USA.

As I realized what I was looking at, I almost fell over: I was standing in the exact same spot where my great grandfather stood, in Dave’s photo; I was looking at the same monument!

The ground beneath my feet felt sacred—not in the cemetery sense, but in the “Something really blessed is happening right here in this moment.

As dramatic as it sounds I was completely overwhelmed with a sense of my ancestors presence. I sat down on the ground and touched the base of the obelisk as I read the names: William. Catherine. Janet. Margaret.

I’m not sure why, but touching this stone, made it more real to me. It was actually unreal until the moment that I felt the stone beneath my fingers.

Agnes’s husband and three of her daughters. Gone.

What immediately struck me as odd (and continues to) is that I suddenly felt happy. Seeing this monument and reading these names didn’t sadden me more. I felt my people smiling down at me. I felt they had brought me to this point and were pleased that I now knew a bit more of their story. We were connected in that moment; they were once again engaged in life—my life and that of my children and living family.

By the time we walked back to our car it was raining and it rained all the way home…

This monument made a statement: How incredibly important family must have been to my ancestors. This pilgrimage back to the motherland, at the turn of the century, to erect this monument to William and the three girls—Janet, Catherine, and Margaret—took money, courage and a commitment that speaks volumes about the terrible sense of loss they felt but it also speaks of immense love, loyalty and bonds that lived within the family.

I emailed Dave as soon as I returned home:

The monument is here!!!! I found it!!!!!!

And I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that our ancestors led me to it. It was bizarre beyond my wildest dreams.

Love you!

H

And Dave replied:

This ancestry stuff can take some weird twists and turns…

David is the master of understatement.

David and I agree that sometimes the magic and miracles that surround this genealogical research leaves us thinking the ancestors want to be heard. They want their stories to be discovered and shared. It’s important—perhaps only because it makes us stronger to know what our people went through in order to get us here. Today.

I thank them, today, for all of the pain, grief and sorrow they endured those years gone by, as well as for leading me to a monument in East Wemyss on September 3, 2012 so I could unravel a bit more of their story and share it.

And as I sit here, in my wee Scottish village, writing this blog in the 21st century, I feel the completion of a circle. Agnes left and I’ve returned.

A note to Agnes: I’m home, Agnes. My babies are all grown and some have babies of their own. I have cousins and second cousins with babies who have babies… Your line lives on… It’s not always an easy life here on planet earth but I think I can speak for all of us—your descendants—we are grateful for the opportunity to travel these roads. And we are here thanks to you, your perseverance and your strength. It was all worth it.

Well done!

The Insanely Fluid Ramblings Of An Optimistic… no wait, Pessimistic… no wait, Optimistic Storyteller

After breaking with my pattern and writing the emotionally difficult blog about my mother, in May, I had a revelation: Prior to that post I had been blogging about experiences and events in my distant past; it was easier, less painful, less personal. It was also less authentic because it didn’t include the raw uncensored aspects of my journey. It’s not that I intentionally bend the facts, later; it’s just that during the time that lapses, between the experiences and when I relate them, I have ample opportunity to soften the edges of the memories—or sharpen them, given my sporadic vacillation between drama and comedy—because first and foremost: I am a storyteller. So regardless of the chosen direction—waxing philosophical or breaking cynical—the recollection of events experienced months or years prior to my telling, are not raw and real. They are tainted and reconstructed with humor, irony and goodwill; whatever makes them easier to live with. But I fear that ultimately these stories become like “easy-listening” radio as opposed to full-on Leonard Cohen… Okay, I’ll never be Leonard Cohen… But hopefully you get my drift.

From here on out I resolve to be more honest—by being more current—when blogging.

Here and now I want to relate a not-too-distant-past event that I survived, but chose not to blog, because it was and is still painful. I realized a few weeks ago that I’d avoided almost all mention of this enormous, life-changing event—even on Facebook.

A short backstory for anyone just entering this blog:

I’ve lived abroad for the better part of 17 years, during which time I raised two amazing daughters and chose a lovely partner, Egil, to share my journey with. Three years ago, after the girls left home, Egil and I relocated from Latvia to Scotland. The reason for relocation was the collapse of the Latvian economy. The reason we chose Scotland was our love for the country.

Reinventing our life has been maximally challenging for many reasons—being people of a certain age is one; conducting a job search in the midst of a terrible recession, as immigrants, is another… The list goes on from there.

Americans are not permitted to live in Scotland for more than 6 months at a time without a visa or living permit. I couldn’t acquire a visa /living permit until Egil—my sponsor—was able to generate enough income, on a regular basis, to support me. Being a European National, he had the right to live and work here in Scotland; finding work was another matter altogether.

So every 6 months I traveled back to the US for 6 months, while Egil worked diligently on finding a niche here in Scotland.

I am now approaching the aforementioned event.

I returned to the US for 6 months in May, 2011. About a week into my visit I contracted an upper-respiratory infection extraordinaire. I was ill for almost 2 weeks. Being one of the 50 million uninsured Americans—and certain I would recover with enough vitamin C, chamomile tea and rest—I did not see a doctor.

Shortly after recovering from this flu I went on a cruise to Alaska; this had been a high priority on my bucket list and was a gift from my cherished friend, and former boarding-school roommate, Brenda. I had said, repeatedly since the early 1970’s, that I would cruise to Alaska before I died. When vowing this, I had no idea how these two events—an Alaskan cruise and my death—would almost simultaneously occur.

In early June, floating off the Alaskan coast, I had an anxiety attack; or so I believed. By the end of July I was having these attacks regularly but believed they were asthma. By the end of October, instead of packing my bags to return to Scotland, I was so ill I could not raise my arms above my head without losing my breath. My feet were swollen and I was coughing up blood…

On October 29th, one day after my 60th birthday, I was hospitalized—insured or not. To my horror I learned, very quickly, that I was in congestive heart failure.

It turns out that almost any flu, if it feels so inclined, can attack any organ of our body after it completes its initial mission. In my case, the bug that attacked my upper respiratory system in May continued its onslaught, well into June, only now it targeted my heart.

I will interject my non-scientific personal beliefs here: My heart was deeply saddened as I watched the sudden and terrible decline of Latvia and was further burdened when Scotland ejected me every 6 months; it was broken a bit more with each prolonged separation from Egil. My heart was weak and vulnerable—an easy target—by May 2011. That flu saw me coming a mile away.

For five and a half months I struggled to move from room to room in my friend, Bette’s, house. For the last two of those months I struggled to breathe even while sitting in a chair. Bedtime was a nightmare; I awakened every hour or so bolting upright, gasping for breath. My dreams were of suffocating and being strangled…

I need to write about this event to get it outside of me… I need to relate how dark and murky that place is—that place that we go when our heart is broken and malfunctioning and we have no medical insurance and no idea where to turn for help. That place where I went. I felt completely helpless and frightened out of my mind for months, with nowhere to turn. I wish I could break philosophical here and tell you that I learned a huge amount and I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to_______. You fill in the blank space with your choice of great learning experiences that you’re pretty sure you would have had. Make up all sorts of reasons why this was a gift from the Universe. Go ahead. I dare you… Because the way I see it is this: I got ripped off of more than 5 months of my life (time that I now recall as one muddy, ugly snapshot flowing into the next) followed by another 8 months of recovery time. Factually, I do believe in a divine plan and that all is well. Somewhere. But here, in my little corner of planet earth, I lost months of my life to illness and more months of time with my partner: Time I will never get back. Then there were the thousands of dollars of medical bills racked up—after trying with all my might to avoid getting help—because my country doesn’t believe its people have the right to healthcare.

I am so pissed-off…

Wait a minute… As I wrote that last sentence I realized how ungrateful I sound.

Okay, let me clarify: I know I’m fortunate to be alive. Of course, I’m blessed to have received the help I needed—albeit in the nick of time because of the lack of healthcare thing… I’m incredibly fortunate that I was born in an era when the medications necessary to save my life were available… I am blessed with good friends and family who hosted me for months while I was immobile and later while recovering…  I know all of that! But that’s not the point; is it?

Wait a minute I need to sort through my feelings in order to stay real.

Okay, I’m back…

Something just hit me: I’ll bet you that if blog about this event in the future, I’ll be disgustingly upbeat about it. At least I’ll have turned it into a black comedy of sorts—smoothing down the edges and fine-tuning the humor… I will have philosophized this event up one side and down the other until it’s hardly recognizable… I’m slipping into it—that saccharinely sweet Pollyanna place—already…

That’s me. That’s how I roll. Damn it all!

It’s not that I’m actually disingenuous. I’m just an incurable optimist—probably bordering on being a romantic—who needs to put every memory into a tidy happy, aesthetically pleasing box, prior to filing it away; that way, when reflecting back on my life, I smile if not laugh.

Now to the present:

Welcome to Scotland!

I always get a lump in my throat when approaching Scotland and seeing this “Welcome” sign. But this trip was even more emotional.

I returned home a little over two weeks ago. I’m now back in Stirling, Scotland with the Symes (my Scottish family) and Egil. As I write this blog, Egil is on the phone, interpreting and working with other immigrants who also fled dire economics. Yes, he found his niche and we’re heading towards a normal life again…

And oddly, as frustrated and angry as I was when I began this blog earlier today, at some point I began remembering other aspects of this horrible, amazing, eventful, year: Because of my illness I was in the states when my mother fell and broke her hip—a story that ended with her in a nursing home. I was able to visit her as she made that transition and I was there to support my sibs at this most difficult and important time. I spent months with my dear brother, Tim, and his wife, Mia, (my sister of choice not birth) and their children and their children’s children—more time than I’ve had with that branch of my family in… well, actually more time than I’ve ever had with them. I was there when my namesake, Holly, gave birth to her beautiful baby, Trey, and I watched him become a toddler. I had time with my sister, Jeannine, who battled breast cancer for the better part of this year and had the privilege of seeing her beautiful baldhead defiantly sprout brand new, soft curly hair, declaring her victorious over the disease. I spent time with my devoted sister, Heather, who walked herself into blisters this year, to raise money for breast cancer research and hovered over Jeannine and me like a mother hen, at every opportunity. I enjoyed time with my children and my beautiful blessed grandchildren. I was present for my daughter Jessica’s graduation from University and proudly cried through the entire day. I had months of quality time with my old and dear friend Bette, who never once commented that my 6-month visit had turned into 15. And Bette and I reconnected with Donna, another friend from childhood… I experienced an earthquake, survived a derecho and had the opportunity to say goodbye to a beloved uncle. I turned one of my children’s books into a musical with the great jazz artist, Heidi Martin. I practiced yoga with my precious friend Mary Lou, who became a certified yoga instructor during this most auspicious and terrible year. I spent time with two of my wise and beautiful, aging aunts…

Damn it, I’m glad I wrote about how pissed off I was with my ill health, and the US lack of healthcare, before I began reflecting on all of the wondrous and beautiful happenings of the past year and a half…

I feel the sharp edges of my memories wearing away as I write, replaced with gratitude that I’m alive, I’m loved, and I have so many beautiful people in my life to love.

My man in the heather

Egil coming out of the heather after a photo op.

I’m sliding into a smile… because I really am incredibly thankful to be alive and writing. I am also supremely grateful for my partner, who waits patiently for me no matter where I go or how long I stay…

Loch Leven

Loch Leven… What can I say? One of the many beautiful lochs in Scotland that welcomed me back.

How can I hold a grudge against my life with all of its perfect imperfections when the bottom line is: I am alive, living in Scotland and loving it, with all of its midges, mountains, rain and lochs? The fact is: I see unicorns and rainbows in my rearview mirror. I can’t help myself. But I will blog about current events and experiences more often—if for no other reason than to travel through the raw painful honesty of it all.

And that’s me, tucked safely back in the arms of my life here and signing off for now~

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I’m an American, Damn it

 

In 1993 I was widowed with two young daughters. Broken and bereaved, I dreamed of rebuilding a simpler, less cluttered life. After months of debating possibilities, I decided that the newly independent country of Estonia was a perfect location to construct this new life. Some said I was overreacting and should continue living in my rural Virginia community. I chose a different path: Within 2 years I packed up all of our earthly necessities and, with my daughters, moved to this tiny Northeastern European country. It never crossed my mind that my goal wasn’t achievable. I believed that anything was possible; so it was.

By 1996 I had bought a small flat and was settled into my new life.

As I walked through an outdoor market in Tartu, Estonia, in 1998, a Russian man yelled: “Hey, American, say us about Clinton and Lewinsky!”

“There’s nothing to say,” I replied. “You read the news and know as much as I do.”

“No, no; say why Americans think this story so big interesting?”

Before I could reply, his friend answered him in Russian, “Because they’re Americans,” as a small crowd nearby laughed.

Typically, Americans are thought to be judgmental and have puritanical attitudes towards sex. But, I walked away with my head held high, that day, because I knew something he didn’t know: I was not a typical American!

Three years into my Estonian adventure, tightened immigration policies dictated that I apply for official residency. Because there was no I love the simple life I’ve created here box to tick on the form for requesting a living permit, I couldn’t even begin the process of applying. I was quickly asked to leave the country.

Wait one damned minute, here… Hasn’t this government been encouraging foreigners to buy property for years? And now, are they just expecting me to walk away from my friends, my life and my property?

I knew I’d emerge victorious, as I entered my battle with the immigration department, stubbornly fighting against what I saw as injustice. More than one time I heard a supervisor say, “She is American!” in reply to a head scratching subordinate asking questions like: “Why does she keep coming back acting like we’ll change our policies?” and “What exactly is she doing in our country, anyway?”

In this context, she’s American meant she’s a warrior and doesn’t surrender easily. It also meant, she has reasons for her choices and behavior that are not necessarily logical. I wasn’t about to explain that my crusade for fairness had nothing to do with being American (certainly not with my pathetic Estonian language skills, since Europeans endlessly ridicule Americans for not mastering foreign languages!). So I allowed the bureaucrats their beliefs, that I was a typical American, as I continued challenging their system.

A few weeks into my battle, a well-known local magazine published an article about my daughters and me, asking pointed questions like: How can Estonia evict a poor widow and her children? And Are these what we call enemies of our state? This was the magic bullet I’d been waiting for, instantly piercing and rewriting the immigration department’s ironclad policies. I was later told—although I never received official confirmation on this—that the country of Estonia adopted a new criterion for immigration based solely on my needs: Anyone owning property in Estonia has the right to request residency thus providing a box for me to tick on my application for a living permit.

I lived quietly in Estonia for several more years after receiving my residency permit—traveling, writing, home-schooling and teaching English as a second language—before moving to Latvia in 2001.

One day while browsing a bookstore in Riga, Latvia, I found a series of books, describing—in sweeping stereotypes—different cultures. I laughed out loud as I read What Is An Italian? Oh those Italians… God bless ‘em. They’re just so Italian… And on to the French… how can you not laugh at, and love, the French?

Then I saw it: What Is An American? The thought of reading about those Americans had me laughing before I opened the book.

Number 1: All Americans think they’ll die of cancer and worry about it constantly.

Wait a minute; I stopped in mid-chuckle. That wasn’t actually funny… I thought of how many things I ate, didn’t eat, supplemented with, and didn’t smoke, in hopes that I’d beat the big C.

Okay, so maybe I had something in common with those Americans.

Number 2: All Americans tell you that they are not typical Americans.

My late mother-in-law once said to me, “I just can’t stand people who speak with accents. I have worked very hard to speak proper English with no accent.” This was said in a refined New York accent. When I attempted to tell her that, to a Midwesterner—or even to me, for that matter—she had a significant accent, she impatiently replied, “That’s simply not true. You, however, do have quite an accent and you might work on that!” I loved my mother-in-law, but I despised her horribly limited worldview—so restricted that she couldn’t see that she was exactly like the people she couldn’t stand.

So there I stood in a bookstore in Riga, Latvia, reading: All Americans tell you that they are not typical Americans, in my decidedly American accent, thinking: Oh shit!

Another widely accepted fact: Americans have coarse vocabularies.

That day—standing in the bookstore—the shutters surrounding my worldview slammed open. And I began the process of embracing my inner-American.

During our time in Estonia and Latvia, we washed our clothes by hand, shopped in open-air markets and lived in some extremely tight quarters. For many years we didn’t own a car; we used public transportation and bicycles. Our minimal wardrobes fit in four drawers and one closet. But through it all we had affordable, if not free, medical care and my daughters had free dental care until they reached 18.

The good times in Estonia and Latvia looked a lot like hard times in America. We struggled financially just to live very simply. Without a high expectation imposed by society, however, there was no stigma on living simply and small, making our modest life manageable, sustainable and joyful—until the time that it ceased to be any of the aforementioned.

It was 2008 when Latvia collapsed economically. The political system, always dodgy, quickly followed the economy down the tubes. Americans can’t imagine the depths of depression reached by New Europe during those hard times.

In the midst of this societal implosion, my Latvian partner, Egils, and I packed up our tiny car and fled to the west, landing in Scotland. Both daughters had relocated—one to begin a family in England and one to attend university in the USA. Egils and I moved in with friends, Jim and Thilda, who opened their home to us until we found work. Although we loved Scotland and our dear friends, being without work, money, or our own home—while looking into the face of our golden years—was an abysmal prospect.

So here I am, living in Scotland, adjusting, learning, and reflecting…

The UK has an interesting relationship with America. They find us fascinating—frequently in a WTF-are-they-thinking kind of way—a bit like parents viewing their teenagers.

Our household is watching BBC news. President Obama is discussing his ideas for building a new healthcare system to replace the broken one… cut to the next frame: A group is protesting in the street against Obamacare. I’m not paying much attention until Thilda turns to me, her mouth slightly open, and says: “Holly, they make it sound like some Americans dinna want free healthcare.”

“Yes, that’s right,” I reply.

“No, I mean, like they don’t want to have a national healthcare system … like they’re not entitled to be healthy …”

“Yes, that’s correct. Some Americans don’t want that,” I say. Then realizing Thilda is having trouble wrapping around the fact that there are people on this planet who believe children are entitled to an education but not healthcare, I continue, “Those very people, who are protesting national healthcare, point to you guys and the way you gripe about the NHS [National Health Service], as a reason not to have national healthcare.”

Thilda’s mouth opens wider, “Surely you’re joking! We want to improve our system, no doubt, just like we want to improve everything. But no one wants to do away with our healthcare, altogether! That would be insane…”

Thilda turns to her husband: “Jim are you hearing this? Do you ken there are some folks who dinna want national healthcare?”

Jim doesn’t look up from his paper. “They’re Americans,” he mutters.

I know what Jim means: Americans are impossible to understand. They are illogical and stubborn as mules. There is no explaining why they vote against their best interest and create horrible messes while declaring they have the best country in the world; of course, in America everything is declared. Loudly. Life is one big fat overreaction…

At least I think that’s what Jim means…

I stop trying to explain Americans, as I feel myself sliding down that slippery slope that begins with explaining, before plummeting into a defense. Why should I defend American insanity? What the hell is wrong with them, anyway? Those stubborn, emotional, opinionated, incapable-of-managing-their-own-lives poor excuses for… I seethe at the images of these Americans on the BBC.

Suddenly I’m aware that I’m sitting in someone else’s living room, because the country I chose to live in for the past 14 years just collapsed; a fact that came as no surprise to most folks, but blindsided me. Some might say that I was incapable of managing my life… Hm … I’m also aware that my stubborn, emotional, opinionated thoughts about Americans, a moment ago, were delivered in an American accent. Shit!

“Is there any hope that this can be solved?” Thilda’s voice interrupts my thoughts.

“Of course,” I say, unsure if I’m referring to my shattered life, my relationship with my motherland or the broken American healthcare system. Or all three.

“There’s really hope?” Thilda sounds skeptical.

“Yes!” I say and, oddly, I mean it.

Because as an outsider looking in I’ve learned a few things about myself from observing my country:

Americans are crusaders, believing in an abundant, safe, clean, country that will be proudly handed down to their grandchildren, although they seldom agree on how to achieve their goals. Americans are emotional, opinionated and extreme, with a stubborn refusal to compromise. This keeps us moving forward; it also plagues us with endless conflict along the way. But, our common denominator is, Americans believe we can forever survive—to dream new dreams and make them come true—and so, somehow, we do.

We believe in alleviating the suffering of others; by now it’s probably a marker in our DNA. The Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore DNA Sequence… And so we will.

Americans are… um… just so American: Frequently crude and loud, forever opinionated, illogical and stubborn. But we are also mighty warriors, capable of creating great change and endlessly reinventing ourselves, particularly when we stop fighting with one another. We are the youngsters of the Old World cultures—high-energy, impetuous children—bumbling, stumbling, as we barge head long into virgin territory, unwilling to take advice from our elders… It’s what makes us innovators and leaders. With youthful exuberance we believe in ourselves—for better or worse. So when we fall we hop up. After behaving badly, we reconsider, undo and reinvent—forever rushing into the unknown with a passion that often destroys us and recreates us simultaneously. We do not believe we can be broken beyond repair; and so we can’t.

I sit here in Scotland watching Americans fighting against national healthcare, with 50 million uninsured Americans and an abysmal economy. They’re broken and battered, in need of a reinvention on many levels—just as I am. But as hopeless as we seem, I know, in my bones, that we will somehow survive these hard times and live to fulfill new dreams and fight another day, because we’re Americans, damn it. We believe in our power to find solutions, rise above challenges and flourish; so—in spite of who we are and because of who we are— we always do!