Discomfort

Last week I had an email exchange with my friend Jessica about the five years I spent living in London (ages 12 to 17).  It was a rich, irreplaceable interval of time, full of the number 9 bus and Fruit Pastilles and Doc Marten boots and weekends riding in the Cotswolds and signing our names on the Berlin Wall.  I still have dear friends from those years.

But there’s no question that the five years that I lived in London, the fifth of which I spent at boarding school in New Hampshire, were bracketed by deep discomfort.  I can close my eyes and stand in the doorway of my Upper Fourth classroom on a cold January day, when my future friend Stephanie threw open the doors and announced, “this is the new girl” before disappearing into the mass of foreign girls speaking in rapid, accented English.  I have rarely wanted to disappear more keenly (and trust me, that’s an emotion I experience a lot).

My childhood was as full of farewells as it was of blindingly bright experiences.  I saw countries and cathedrals and I also cried my eyes out, missing friends in Cambridge, in Paris, in London.  I went back and forth across the ocean so many times I wasn’t really sure, for several years, where home was.  I would never trade my childhood, and the unique terroir in which I grew (shared only by my sister).  But it was certainly full of dislocation, threaded through with a fundamental sense of discomfort.  I was always new somewhere, or about to leave.  The fabric of my life was woven through with departures.

I don’t know why this has been on my mind lately.  Maybe it is because I am particularly cognizant of how comfortable my adult life is, how different Grace and Whit’s childhoods are from mine.  After our trip to Jerusalem last year, I reflected that my sister and I had had seemingly opposite responses to our shared childhood.  I am the unadventurous one.  I have always chosen safety and comfort.

And yet.  The thing is, I still feel uncomfortable a lot of the time.  It’s not the same uneasiness that comes with being in an unfamiliar country: different coins (oh, how many times have I offered a palm full of foreign money to a bus driver and asked them to take what they need?), different names of dish soap, different kinds of foods.  But it is a vague sense of discomfort in my own life.  There are not that many people who feel like native speakers of my language.  There are not many places that I feel entirely accepted.  I long to belong.

I used to think that it was my childhood of constant goodbyes that created this feeling of fundamental otherness.  Years ago I described the way all those “departures remain within me, hard little kernels of sadness that the rest of my experience flows around, but not undisturbed.”  But maybe that’s not it.  Maybe it is actually the other way around.

Perhaps for too long I’ve incorrectly ascribed responsibility for the way I am to my peripatetic childhood.  Maybe this is my essential self, this nose-pressed-against-the-window sensation simply my way of being in the world.  It’s the reason I take the pictures.  It’s the reason I am often misconstrued as aloof and chilly.  I guess it is just part of who I am, for better or for worse.


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18 Comments

  1. Posted March 14, 2013 at 4:53 am | Permalink

    I wonder which came first- your you-ness or all the moving… it is an interesting thought, isn’t it? And do you want to know something funny… I always thought you were in London for much longer than that and at Exeter for all of high school. Memory is a strange thing!

    admin Reply:

    It is! I moved to London at Christmas break of my 7th grade year, and came to Exeter for 11th grade. My first year at Exeter my whole family was in London. The summer before my senior year, my mother and sister (she went to another boarding school) moved home. The summer after I graduated, my father joined us.

  2. Posted March 14, 2013 at 6:57 am | Permalink

    Lindsey, thank you for this post. You have so beautifully put into words what I too have felt since I was a little girl! I was born in England and lived there until I was 10, only to move to Rhode Island (followed by Philadelphia, and New York, and San Diego…) only to return to London again a few years ago… and now I’m in Boston, hopefully for good.
    Funny how life takes us back and forth. I’m grateful for the exposure to these two very different cultures, but like you “I long to belong” and always have.
    It’s exhausting, having to adapt, isn’t it?

    admin Reply:

    Yes, exhausting … And it took me a long time to realize that. And I’m always worried that expressing the downsides of constant moves makes me seem ungrateful for what was clearly a hugely fortunate childhood – I’m not. It’s just that there were costs.

  3. Posted March 14, 2013 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    This explains to me why you are such a keen observer. Being able to drink deeply of what is going on around you fills up the void of feeling invisible. You belong even when you are “nose pressed up against the window” because you are the one to appreciate and document that unique moment. I am so glad you are who you are in the world as I leave nose-prints everywhere too. Emily

    admin Reply:

    So grateful to know that someone whose writing & way of being in the world I so admire relates. xo

  4. Sally willits
    Posted March 14, 2013 at 7:16 am | Permalink

    You belong to me.

    admin Reply:

    🙂

  5. Posted March 14, 2013 at 7:21 am | Permalink

    I love everyone’s thoughts above, and before I got to your last paragraph I wondered what you wondered: perhaps this is just your essential nature? I guess the question is, can you be comfortable with the discomfort (is that paradox possible?)? I, too, often feel like an outsider, although in very different ways from you. I am always seeking to be more comfortable in my own skin.

    admin Reply:

    Yes – to be comfortable in our skin, in our lives, in our now – that’s one of the central tasks of life, isn’t it?

  6. Hilary Mead
    Posted March 14, 2013 at 7:27 am | Permalink

    This is beautiful. I feel the same way, that I never really belong anywhere. But I guess I do something different with that feeling. It’s like, “if I’m going to feel out of place no matter what, I might as well go far from home.”

    admin Reply:

    I think you responded better.

  7. Abby
    Posted March 14, 2013 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    I was so sad when you left us. Pages in my scrapbook from that time are still devoted to pictures and memories of you. My first international trip was to visit you in England. I remember your flat in Camden Court (?), small, cozy, drafty, big windows opening up to the grey outside. I remember you being happy, a bit bewildered, comforted by your things from “home” and embraced by your cool new friends who all sounded so damn clever with their accents. You took it all with stride.

    admin Reply:

    Oh, Abby – I have total goosebumps. I had no idea you knew about my blog. Isn’t it amazing that you live in England now? I have so, so many indelible memories of those 5, 6, 7 grade years

  8. Posted March 14, 2013 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    I have always been so jealous of your childhood. I was the one stuck in the suburbs, going through each school in turn, only leaving for college (and by that time way past chomping at the bit). I NEVER thought I would return. And here I am. My kids go to the same elementary school I did. And I would love to leave again.

    I do think it’s just your way. But I like the person it makes you — your discomfort makes you one of the most sensitive, empathetic, aware people I know. You feel everything, and I know that causes you a lot of pain. But you feel EVERYTHING. You are fully alive. There is no chance of you taking a moment for granted. What a gift.

    admin Reply:

    Well, thank you for these immensely kind words. It’s generous of you to remind me that the pain and unease that are such an unavoidable part of my day might have a positive flip side. xo

  9. Posted March 14, 2013 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    I love the way you are always trying to understand yourself better. Your introspection is always so helpful to me. I have always felt a similar, but slightly different feeling. I was a strong island and preferred being alone to many things (although not many people knew this – I didn’t appear aloof) but i always felt like I wasn’t born in the right time. I felt I would have better fit in a few years earlier or a few years later. Perhaps it is the same feeling manifesting itself a little differently.

    admin Reply:

    Well, thank you for saying that – that “trying to understand myself” often feels like flailing around in the same dark tunnel, staring at the same questions, over and over again. xox

  10. Posted March 14, 2013 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    When I read your work, I am frequently amazed at how self-aware you were from such a young age. Although all of my moving occurred domestically, I never started to digest its impact until many years passed.

    Just last night my husband and I were discussing a similar thread–the “which-came-first” questions of nature versus nurture. I often find myself creating worn patterns in my mind when I try to tease out the answer.

    So glad you’re in my world.
    xo

    admin Reply:

    And I’m glad you are in mine. Never leave, okay?

  11. Posted March 14, 2013 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    I think we’re all made up of part nature, part nurture. I can relate so much to the discomfort of not fitting in, and how different my life now is from my childhood. Part of that is the way in which the world was introduced to us, and part is the way in which we naturally responded. We grow into who we are from the roots of who we are, incorporating our experiences as we go. At least, that’s how I choose to see it.

    admin Reply:

    i think that’s the perfect way to see it – and probably the way we each incorporate these things, or the balance between nature and nurture, is different for each of us. xox

  12. Posted March 14, 2013 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    Beautiful post. I can’t help but think you are who you are because of and in spite of your childhood experiences. As someone who literally lived in the same house for 18 years before going to college, I longed for the kind of interesting and layered life you had! I only dreamed of places like London… I wonder how different I might be had I traveled the world at a young age. I still haven’t really traveled the world – I should get on that. xox

    admin Reply:

    Well, I longed for the stability of a life like yours! 🙂 Maybe the grass really is always greener.

  13. Posted March 14, 2013 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    Typed and retyped 4 comments now.

    I think it comes down to each of us being inherently who we are and our experiences drawing the parts that are most natural. Not wrong, and not right, just us.

    admin Reply:

    Amen. xoxo

  14. Posted March 14, 2013 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

    Simply beautiful, Lindsey, your writing and description of moving and moving again. I always gain so much by hearing others describe that rootless childhood that also defines mine. And now in the midst of repatriating with my own family, I’m acutely aware of how my boys are experiencing our move abroad and back home. My sole comfort is in knowing deeply that each place we have been, we were clearly meant to be. And so goes on the adventure of living, breathing, being, and becoming our best, aware of the moment and opportunities at hand. Thank you for noticing the nuances of what others miss. It is a gift. xoxo

  15. Posted March 14, 2013 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

    Oh Lindsey this so hit home with me!! I lived in the same small town for 15 years, college, and then California for ten years. I’ve always felt uncomfortable in my own skin but VERY comfortable in the Bay Area. Now I move every 2 years and the discomfort has exponentially quadrupled. Thank you for sharing this so I can think about it.

  16. Posted March 15, 2013 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    Lindsey, what a fascinating post! I love getting an insight into your past, since I am a fan of your writing and love to follow your posts. I have lived in 4 states in my life, and traveled back and forth overseas for my job, and commuted cross-country to date my now-husband. I always felt this need to travel… a burning desire to GO… until I got married and had my son. Now, all I want to do is be home.

  17. Posted March 15, 2013 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    Such beautiful writing and I so appreciate this post. Thank you! A bonus is to notice that many of those who have commented have also lived (or are living) abroad. More links for me to follow! Hooray! A few months ago, someone asked me if we had made the ‘right’ decision to move our young family to England. I was tongue-tied for some time, and later came up with this: http://onetreebohemia.wordpress.com/2013/01/28/rumis-field/. I think the quote that inspired it may have come my way from your blog.

  18. Posted March 15, 2013 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    I read the posts about terroir and the one about BlogHer and this one again and I have to say, I don’t know.

    I had a very different childhood from yours. Never stepped foot on an airplane until I was 18. Never left my home state until I was 14. Attended the same school, with the same kids, from K through 12.

    And I, too, felt always like the person with my nose pressed to the glass. Felt always a longing to find my people and belong.Have been misconstrued my whole life long.

    I think it is more about a temperament we are born with than with experiences that shape us. I think I was born an observer and processor. The world needs us, you know. To help make sense of it. (Thank you for pointing me to Quiet.)

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