As my daughter hurtles toward her second birthday, she is learning all the immutable laws of the world around her. Time, distance, cause and effect, gravity. As I watch her mastering these concepts, I wouldn’t say I am relearning them so much as appreciating them anew. And none more so, or more vividly, than the unavoidable truth that what goes up must come down.
Simultaneous to the onset of Mira’s toddlerhood, I finally got a job here in Switzerland. Soon after that, I secured my C permit. If you’d asked me a few years ago whether either of these things would be possible, I’d have said, “You’re funny. Go to sleep.” If you’d asked me a few months ago, I’d have probably done you serious physical harm because can’t you see that I am trying to raise a human here?!?
Still, even with these not-insignificant badges on my immigrant sash, I have been exceedingly hard on myself the past six months and not acknowledging these milestones in the manner one (myself included) might expect.
I read a study once about why we get aggressive when we see pictures of baby animals and other cute things. (I was relieved that someone in a position of authority finally researched this; my husband never has understood why my extreme love for him inspires me to squeeze him so hard.) The psychologists concluded that our aggression is meant to temper the strong positive emotions that cuteness—or images of cuteness—trigger in us, bringing us back into balance lest we just float off into the ether, high on tiny paws and tufty fur.
I suppose my recent exhaustion, self-doubt, and powerful frustration could be my body’s way of keeping myself on an even keel, lest I get too happy that I can now buy underwear with my own hard-earned cash. Totally possible that these micro-bouts of anxiety I’ve been having are just nature’s answer to any euphoria I might feel about my professional viability or bureaucratic triumph.
Somehow, though, I have a hard time believing that day-long stretches of chest tightness is a sustainable response to joy.
Early on in our Swiss relocation, I thought of each item we checked off our resettlement to-do list as a new level reached in the video game of life, or at least points toward advancement to some new, as yet unknown, realm of worry-free contentment. I say this as a non-gamer, though. The only video games I ever played—as a child or otherwise—were Frogger and Oregon Trail. I still have this idea fixed in my mind, though, that opening a foreign bank account, finding a local community of writers, having a baby and raising her abroad, buying a home in a foreign country, passing my A2 language test, and most recently, obtaining a C permit and establishing gainful employment, are all magic mushrooms gathered, carrying me forward to the Xanadu of adulthood—and parenthood, and ‘immigranthood’—where I can just rest (or roller-skate) on my laurels.
The reality, alas, is something altogether different.
With each advancement, the stakes get higher and the problems and their solutions more complicated. The pitfalls are greater in number and better hidden, the enemies ever increasingly clever and indomitable. The things I don’t know far outnumber the things I do. Where it seems like this forward-leaping progress should come with more champagne toasts, instead cloudy days of the soul abound, not only because I’m still running the gauntlet, but because it’s a gauntlet I’ve never run before and I have no idea if my wit, skill, strength, and endurance will be equal to the test. Just because I unlocked a new level doesn’t automatically ensure that I’ll make it through unscathed.
This isn’t to say we should simply memorize the terrain on the ground floor and crown ourselves kings and queens of the easy and uncomplicated, tempting as that sounds. Better to strap on those skates and see if you can’t get across the swamp to the glory, however short-lived it might be, that awaits on the other side.
In those rare moments I feel chuffed with myself, like I’ve got some things figured out, I try to savor the sensation because I’m all too aware that a generously proportioned slice of humble pie is probably on tomorrow’s menu. Similarly, in those low moments, I try to remember that I worked my ass off to reach this brave new world where I don’t have all the answers, or, sometimes, any answers at all. Counter-intuitive as it may seem, these feelings of duress and disorientation are something to be proud of, and a necessary part of winning the game.
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