Authentic Aloha

When I was a kid, my family lived the tourist town of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. While the adults liked the interlopers because they knew their income relied on them, we kids hated them. They were always stopping in the middle of the sidewalk to gape at some stupid old building, or wandering into our play areas while hunting for arrowheads or inspecting Civil War battlegrounds. If they made the mistake of driving down our riverfront dead-end road, we would scream “Tourists! GET ‘EM!!”, and run down to moon them and throw rocks. Usually they would panic and drive off. Once, someone actually got out of his car and asked to take our photo. We all flipped off the camera while he laughed and encouraged us. I wonder now where that snapshot of 1980s hillbilly river-rat child life lives. Above someone’s mantle? More likely in a drawer or mouldering box with images of other, forgotten, strangers. 

WV river rats, ready to moon your car, circa 1987

*note: this is the only photo of my own used in this post. I just didn’t have time, so I stole from the internet- which is why we have the internet

Working in Waikiki exposes me to hundreds, if not thousands, of tourists a week. From my spot in the harbor, I can see their blindingly sunburnt bodies teetering on stand-up paddleboards or wandering, ghostly pale under parasols, through the high-end shopping areas. They stop dead in the middle of the sidewalk to stare up at the fighter jets screaming across the sky, or a massive cruise ship- twice the height of the nearby buildings- pulling into the harbor. They gawp at the surfers and are perplexed by the scores of homeless camps that pepper the public parks and sidewalks in town. I watch them try to get their perfect Instagram vacation photo, angling their view so as to avoid getting the elderly woman digging through the rubbish bin for food in the shot. 

Homeless camp, stolen from internet

They party at night in the hip bars in Chinatown, but never spend money in the Filipino groceries that occupy the same street during the day (unless it’s to buy something they will immediately dare each other to eat, laugh about, then throw away). You almost never see them on the leeward side of the island- where we live- unless they’ve accidentally wandered off the Disney Resort grounds. You can spot them, wearing shirts that say “Aloha Y’all” (on sale at Target for $9.99) gazing around at all the saimin, lumpia, malasadas, ramen and BBQ restaurants and food trucks, confused and asking where they can find a “real” Hawaiian restaurant. These are the people who are happy to pay $200 a plate at a luau so they can get the “authentic” Hawaiian experience*. 

*full disclosure- I totally want to go to a luau. No luau shaming here. 

Hula performers at a Luau, stolen from internet

But the thing is – drumroll please for my big, five months of living here wisdom bomb – they are missing the “authentic” Hawaiian experience entirely by focusing only on what the posters and carefully staged Instagram photos show. Because the advertisements only show part of the story. Yes, there are vistas so beautiful it makes your guts twist. There is snorkeling and scuba diving, sunset cruises, a host of expensive “experiences”. There are fitness models dragging surfboards across the sand, hula dancers at the shopping center, and stores where you can buy $1500 one-of-a-kind Gucci handbags.

Luxury shopping at Ala Moana Center, stolen from internet

But what you don’t see in the ads is the nearly 5,000 homeless people living on the island, 800 of which are children, and not counting the 90 of which who died literally on the streets last year. If you’re a stats person- that’s 1.5% of the population – that’s third highest in the nation, after DC and NYC. You don’t see the fact that only 8.15% of the population is Native Hawaiian, nor do you see that many are battling to save their traditional lands from greedy developers who want to skim the top off a sacred mountain site to build (another) telescope. You don’t see the posters I see in the free health clinics that say that half of adult Hawaiians have diabetes, or that the have the highest teen vaping numbers in the country- and that over a quarter of middle schoolers that vape. You don’t see the park across the street from my kids’ school, where people are openly doing meth, that serves as a gathering place for rival gangs to have knife fights. And they certainly don’t show the commute that takes an hour and a half in five lanes, bumper-to-bumper, to get the mere 8 miles to work. 

Traffic on Oahu, stolen from internet

And all that sounds bad. And it is. But also, you don’t see the rich diversity of this place. You don’t see that people of Japanese and Filipino descent make up over 50% of the population, contributing to the glorious hybridity of East and West here. You don’t see the widespread embracing of all body types- beach bodies be damned- and inclusion of people with disabilities in every aspect of life. You don’t see how patient and aloha the drivers in that awful traffic are, allowing one another merge and throwing shakas. You don’t see strangers helping elderly Aunties do their grocery shopping. You don’t see the fantastic array of fruits and vegetables at Don Quijote or Pacific Market (two of the big Asian groceries). You don’t see the Tongan-Samoan-Hawaiian unity events. You don’t see the volunteers who do outreach with the homeless, feeding, clothing and offering homework help for those living in the tent cities. You don’t hear the melange of languages on the school campuses, and you don’t see the students freely offering up their weekends to do beach clean ups or feed families at the Ronald McDonald house. And you don’t see that the Mauna Kea protesters have secured a halt (at least for now) to the destruction of their mountain. 

Mauna Kea protesters, stolen from internet

Some people hate the tourists for their blindness to all of these truly authentic experiences of Hawaii. But not me. 

I welcome them, with their entire family in matching aloha print garb. With their sunburns and random holding up the sidewalks to take a picture of another rainbow (because, like butterflies, it’s always exciting to see one, even if it’s the fourth of the day). With their desire to support Native Hawaiians, even if it is is a slightly misguided, voyeuristic way. With their funny reactions to Loco Moco (“is it just… gravy, burger meat, and a boiled egg on rice? Is this really a traditional food?” ((answer: sort of yes, sort of no)) ) I welcome them with their ignorance to the ugliness and beauty and deep, deep contradictions of this place- and I invite them to wade into it like they do the ocean waters outside their fancy hotels at Waikiki. It may be a bit of a shock at first, but you’ll quickly get used to it.

And then, maybe, it will be harder getting out. 

A Return

It has been too long, and I am fighting the hitch in my breath, the paralysis of my hands, to write about what has been one whirligig of a year. I will start with what I find easiest- a vignette- and try to proceed from there:

December 27, 2018. I am standing in a cold, dewy field with my family and a small assortment of strangers at 4:30am in Ipswich, Queensland, Australia. We watch as a truck pulls up beside us and a crew-cutted man kicks a large basket out the back. He makes a joke we can’t hear, but his three man crew laughs at as they begin spooling out the hulk of parachute silk attached to the basket. This is our captain, and vessel, for the next three hours. We are going up in a blue and yellow hot air balloon. 

Cut to an hour later and we are airborne, drifting over farmland somewhere west of the city. A steady drip of condensation on my neck from the gas heater brings me back to the basket again and again from the silent rapture of silently coasting on nothing as the sun rises around us. It is so quiet in the balloon. Even the nervously chattering couple from Japan has quieted as we bob along. The passengers take selfies, point at the river and fields below, and sometimes as a question of the pilot. 

My head is pulsing along to my heartbeat, watching my family soaking in this moment and thinking how much I love this place. I am swollen with the promises dangled before us of work sponsorship and permanency. I am confident and secure and so, so damn happy.

The teen almost smiled
Everybody almost smiled

A few days later, I was badly injured on the way to work at the Queensland Museum. It was a drizzly January morning and the brakes on my bicycle gave out on a 45• descent on the bike path into city. Luckily another cyclist managed to stop my careening toward the busy road at the bottom of the hill. Unluckily, that person was a complete ass and proceeded to stand over my bleeding, semi-conscious body and yell at me for being “a bloody idiot” and “stupid” and “the reason women shouldn’t be allowed on the bike path.” The other commuters managed to chase him off and I was shuttled off by a doctor that happened to be passing by on his way into work at the Mater Hospital. I got morphine and stitches a CT scan and, later, they discovered a massive hernia from where the handlebars had ripped completely through the muscles of my abdomen. 

At least I never let go of the handlebars
Swole

I got top-notch emergency, follow-up, and physical therapy care. When they discovered that the lump on my belly was not just a hematoma, but a massive hernia, I was admitted into surgery with Queensland’s top specialist a week later. I received mental and emotional health support, and started EMDR therapy for trauma- not just from the wreck, but for all the preexisting trauma that it triggered. I was awarded worker’s compensation and full-time pay because I had been on my way to work at the time (yeah- not even THERE yet! Just en route!). I was cared for and attended to with dignity and understanding and the best of care. 

And I thought “what if this had happened in the US?” And I spent a lot of days crying because I knew *exactly* what. We’d be bankrupt. I was so grateful that we were exactly where we needed to be.

***

In February, I started my dream job. I shipped out to Bougainville for the first time to work with our local team members there, and to train them on how to use participatory and documentary video to enhance their peacebuilding dialogues. I immediately felt welcomed by our local partners and respected by our international team. I felt accepted both professionally and personally in a way I never had before. This is what I’m meant for! is what I kept thinking and I really felt, for the first time in my life, that I had “arrived”. I was living in Australia, with (mostly) happy kids and a wonderful marriage, my dream job, health care, great neighbors, and a path toward the future that felt like all the past crap had been worth it.

Hutjena, Buka Island, Bougainville
Wakunai performing arts group in Arawa, Bougainville Island, Bouogainville.

And then.

B sent me a message the last day of my trip in March. The museum was “restructuring” because they got audited and realized the dolts upstairs had gotten themselves $6 million in debt. And, being the upstairs, they decided the best way to handle this was to cut all the contracts of the workers downstairs to compensate for their own ineptitude. This meant that all non-permanent contract employees (including those who had been renewing yearly contracts for upwards of a decade) had the option to find work elsewhere, or stay on as a “casual” with no benefits or guarantee of steady work. For us, this meant that the very promising path toward securing a work sponsorship- approval had been made by many of the higher-ups and was being negotiated by the final decision makers- was suddenly ripped out from under us. That sponsorship had been the final egg in the last basket we had for making Australia a permanent reality for ourselves. 

Over the next few months, as we had in the four years preceding, we followed every other possible lead to extend our visas. We bowed and scraped and, yes, we begged- we were shameless in our hustle. But it didn’t matter. Nothing we could do would have changed anything. And there was a very real financial threat dangling over us if we opted to try to “pay” our way for another year. Like- to the tune of $100,000 up-front. And, look, we have never had that kind of flow. I don’t suspect we’ll ever just have anything close to that just hanging out in the bank. I mean, if we breach the 4 number mark, I’m like “HOO-WEEE! Ain’t we rich now!” But it wasn’t just that.

We were exhausted. Fighting visas and immigration is so draining. Hearing over and over again that you don’t have enough “points” to qualify is disheartening. Chasing the certificates and experiences to gather points negates itself when your time spent attaining them is simultaneously losing points for you as you age. Turn 40? Oup- sorry, take five points away. And, if I’m being perfectly honest, it started to bother us that we were seeing so many people get permanent residency just to fuck off and move back to whatever country they came from. It is INFURUATING to work so hard at something and watch another person get it and fritter it away. I literally heard a person at a party say “yeah, well, my dad just paid an immigration lawyer. Anyway, as soon as I get permanent residency next month, I’m moving back to Brazil.” I wanted to jump on them like a screeching spider monkey and bite their face off. 

But then the depression set in. Between my injury from the bike wreck (though it did, eventually, get attended to with a no-cost surgery in July, I had to just live with the pain and giant lump from the massive hernia for a long time), and the fact that this beautiful confection of a life we had concocted was melting around us, I lost the thread. 

I stopped writing. I started staring at my phone way too much. I stopped taking walks around random parts of the city. I started laying in bed most of the day. I stopped feeling a part of my own life. I started just going through the motions. I stopped enjoying the time I had left in Brisbane, and started mourning the loss before it was even gone. 

Eventually, I got honest with my GP about what was going on and she got me in with an amazing therapist. EMDR therapy helped me overcome some old traumas, and that was hopeful. I was still depressed, but trying to claw my way out.
I made a video for an inclusive choir that I volunteered with (don’t worry- I didn’t sing, only cooked- not trying to kill anyone), and focused on helping my kids navigate their own grief at having to leave. I poured myself into working as many hours as possible at my many side-jobs, to save money for whatever was to come next. 

Over. It.

I brainstormed on how I could keep my job in Bougainville, despite not being able to live in Australia. I briefly considered moving to Bougainville, but knew it was not a great choice for my family. And we pretty quickly ruled out any other closer nations- again, we were just so defeated by chasing visas, we didn’t have it in us to start that process again. It came up that we could potentially live rent-free in B’s dad’s house in Oregon, but that was an immediate and firm “no way.” We looked at California, then started in on closer, US-occupied territories: Guam, American Samoa.. and then, while driving to work one day, it came to me “hey, dummy, what about Hawaii?!” I pulled over and called Brian. He was also working, and clearly distracted, but he said, “yeah, okay, that makes sense.” 

Neither of us had ever been to Hawaii, but logistically, it made sense. And, as we’ve somewhat reticently come to realize, we think we’re “island-people” (he always thought of himself as a mountain-person, and me as a city-person, but here we are).
He applied for a Naval apprenticeship and went to Honolulu in May to take a test for it. He reported back with his observations and, if we couldn’t have Australia, Oahu seemed like a good enough fit. 

In June, I took a second trip to Bougainville and fell in love all over again. I began feeling like we had made a good choice, and tried to start getting excited about Hawaii.

Buka Town, Buka Island, Bougainville

In July, I had my hernia surgery. Despite it being a week of the MOST agonizing recovery I have ever experienced, it helped me (along with some intense EMDR) to overcome some of the trauma I felt from the wreck itself. 

In August, I turned 42, worked some amazing events through the various catering companies I picked up with, volunteered extra days with the choir, and started thinking about writing again- but didn’t. A clear sign that I was still depressed.

Night view of Brisbane from the choir kitchen
The Brisbane “Wheel”. Many ups and downs in Bris-Vegas

In September, despite my desperate clinging to my friend and neighbor, A, tangled in limbs on the couch, each of us crying into the other’s cleavage as her children clambered over us, oblivious, we moved to Oahu. We even made B cry with our blubbering. But the plane was soon departing, and we had to get on it.

Last photo in Australia, some of us are smiling, but no one is happy


We had some funny ups and downs trying to figure out housing, transportation, jobs, and education for the boys, but we worked it out (I may, or may not, make a separate post about those early days later on). Two weeks after we landed, I was back to Bougainville. Yeah. Crazy.
But, it solidified the idea that this is possible. I am able to actually pull off this wacky scheme of living in the US and working in Bougainville with an agency based in Australia. … wait… did I achieve “internationalism?” Dang.

Things are looking up in Hawaii
And we can visit sea turtles any time

In October, I was home (“home?”- still feels weird to say) to Oahu for 2 1/2 weeks before flying out to act as the “best man” in my dear friend, Sparkles’s wedding. We had the bachelor party at the NC State Fair, and acted somewhat presentable as suited-up people in a wedding.

The bachelor party- a blur
Very respectable people in suits
Well, maybe not “so” respectable
The stunningly beautiful bride tolerates our shenanigans

In November, the dust settled. I unpacked all my bags and rearranged furniture that had been wildly tossed into rooms during those precious few days I had been in Hawaii between trips. I started working a side job- doing teak finishing inside a yacht in Waikiki- that is blissfully monotonous and soothing. I agreed to become a full partner in the organization I work for in Australia/Bo0ugainville. I approached a children’s shelter about volunteering, and have been asked if I’m interested in making a documentary about their work. The answer is YES! And I’m making a few little videos to help generate some funding for X’s service group trip to the Philippines next year. And I have slowly started building friendships with people here (or at least haven’t totally scared them off yet).
This probably sounds like a lot to many people. My mom tells me that I remind her of those circus performers that spin plates on sticks. But, for me, busy means healthy. I’m pretty good at managing my time, and tend to get squirrely when bored, so more is better. 

Not me, not my plates- image borrowed from Google Images

For what it’s worth- I’ve decided to postpone applying to a PhD program at the University of Hawaii until next year, so I can focus on me first. 

That said- we’ve had a chill December, without a single lick of the holiday stress or bad weather (so hot in Oz, so cold in NC). A bit of rain, but that only means more rainbows here. And I know that the weight of depression is finally lifting in earnest, as I’m able to sit and write without freezing in a draft of dread.

So, there it is. The answer as to why I haven’t been blogging about this new adventure is simple. It didn’t feel like an adventure until recently. This year was a damn slog. One full of tears and blood, jet-lag and crushing grief. 

My hope for 2020 is that we continue into this Hawaiian experience with optimism and openness to whatever these islands bring. And (excepting some pre-scheduled dental work for me), no major surgeries or illnesses. I also hope to make peace with the fact that I live in a place where mongoose are just hanging around, waiting to fight whatever gets too close. I hope not to get too close to a mongoose. 

This cove is a five minute walk from my house
Sunset over the boat yard where I have my side job

Public Knowledge

This morning I awoke with a line of deep purple crescents on the heels of my hands. Little bruises from having my fists clenched tight while I slept. I’ve been holding on too hard, I think, to something intangible. An alternate storyline for BLOX that is not meant to be right now. 

In my dreams (awake and sleeping), we are exploring Australia: diving the Great Barrier Reef, visiting the sacred sites at Uluru, penguin and whale watching on the Coastal Drive, trekking across the vast wasteland of the outback to gaze at Burringurrah, visiting the artists on Tiwi Islands, doing whatever people do in Tasmania, so many more. Our adventure bank sits neglected, full of unattempted ideas. We’ve been encumbered by daily life: work, school, chores and errands. Working class grind has and will always erode plans made by ambitious minds. And we recognize that we are immigrants, not travelers. Our finances and schedules don’t allow for extended holidays and travel. Still, we’ve been happy here- at least content on most days. And that’s what I’ve been digging my claws into. But I’ve left bruises on my palms because there’s nothing here for us to hold. 

Great Barrier Reef from the air

I’ve leaked it to a few, more here than there, but when you’ve said “this isn’t public knowledge yet” to a certain number of people- it’s time to reckon with the fact that it’s pretty much public knowledge. And even though plans are being made and confirmed, it doesn’t feel really real yet and I am quaking at the notion that announcing it will cement the fact. 

And the fact is: we are leaving Australia. 

BLOX’s great adventure in Oz is drawing to a close. Just a few months ago, we were getting close to a breakthrough on gaining permanent residency, but a lot changed very quickly in February/March and those prospects dried up. We fought it- bowed and scraped to make a new path to the same destination, but it’s proving too difficult. Impossible, really. 

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating- Immigration is HARD. It’s hard for everyone, but especially for blue-collar families. People of privilege have suggested we “just” try to pay our way through another year here and the path will open back up. Sure, I’m sure it would, but we don’t have another year’s worth of money to throw at the still-slim chance that taunts us. And, as much as that- we don’t have the mental and emotional reserves left to keep fighting to stay in a place that is even more prohibitive to poor immigrants than the States. We can’t- and don’t want to- keep paying private school sums for public education, get taxed at outrageous rates, get denied for every opportunity, credit lines, job placement, and fight for recompensation on every dollar we are entitled to from health insurance, just because we are not from here. We are exhausted and broke, but not broken (though I think if we were to keep bashing our stubborn heads against staying here, it would eventually wear us to bits). 

These signs are everywhere – wish the government would get the message

Our next move is one of convenience. None of is ever considered this place- not even as a holiday destination. And yet, it makes the most sense in terms of continuing my work in the Pacific and B has passed through the first few levels of what will (hopefully) be a fantastic job/training opportunity for him. We know there will be challenges there, too, but we hope that the good outweighs the bad (and maybe some of our U.S. friends will get off their lazy butts and actually come visit us there). I feel like a big baby whining about having to move to a place that many people dream of, but here I am. 

We are moving to Oahu, Hawaii. 

Thank you all for joining us on the Big Australian Adventure. We are sad that it is coming to an end, but looking forward to our new future. 

And, as our next jump is still “over the rainbow” I will keep this blog name and format intact so you can follow along as we do it all over again. 

With that, I will sign off- leaving you with this music video that I was crying over this morning.

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Hillbilly Diaspora

I read the words “Hillbilly Diaspora*” a few weeks ago and haven’t been able to shake it since. It hit me deep, y’all.

* Now, I’ll tell you- I had never heard of this word “diaspora” before I went to university. It can be a complicated concept, and it’s too political and complex to get into here. But I’m using it in its simplest terms- when people of a certain group leave their homeland and live in different parts of the world.

Perhaps it’s because I’m really struggling with migrant life right now. Perhaps it’s because I am still coming to terms with my own Southernness in a place where most Americans I meet are from Colorado (why?- oh, right- rich folx). Probably has something to do with my shortage of grits and Texas Pete. The most likely reason is that I know that I know I am an exception to the rule and that sits real uncomfortable with me. 

A number of people here have said to me that they haven’t met many Southerners in Australia. “Yeah- we don’t get out much,” is my joking (not joking) response. See, it’s true. Hillbillies don’t go far from home. And there are a lot of reasons for this. 

One is education. In Western cultures, it is higher education that drives migration, and most poor folx in the South/Appalachia (cause we all know Ohio ain’t the South) don’t have the same educational opportunities. Our schools are underfunded, understaffed and under-attended. Many don’t see the point of finishing high school, much less going on to college. If you can get a job paying anything slightly over minimum wage- why bother? It’s expensive and will probably take you away from home (I’ll talk about that soon). Heck- go to trade school. It’s cheaper and close. And, honestly, without the crippling debt of university loans- you’re probably better off in the long run, so long as you don’t have any travel aspirations. I sometimes regret not having gone to trade school- but that’s another story. 

I tell you what- I HATE academia. I do. Office-dwelling theorists who hide behind their research and steal from their grad students first-hand reports piss me off more than just about anybody*. But I must acknowledge that the only reason I am  where I am today is because of opportunities that started opening for me in undergrad. I met professors that helped guide me to things I never thought possible. I was invited to conferences and “networking events,” met people who knew people, and got those all-important letters of recommendation. I took an internship that inspired me and completely changed my career path.  I got that string of letters behind my name that affords me legitimacy in “polite society.” Academia, for all the insufferable bores rattling around in it, gave me the chance to move up and move forward with my life. I don’t take that for granted.

* I just want to note here that I have met a great many lovely academics who do their own work and are awesome people. But y’all, if you’re reading this, come on- you know it’s true. Look down the hallway. I bet you can identify at least one jerk in your department that has built a career on siting other people’s research (or acting as “first author” on a student’s work) instead of going out and creating their own. 

Graduation Day with my besties Fola & Nadia (who couldn’t come- so we brought her photo and put a little hat on it)

Another reason hillbillies don’t go is because of money. Some people say that education leads to employment and financial gain. Those people were probably born into rich families. I could not get a decent job straight out of undergrad. I worked a series of crappy little jobs and when I landed a “big deal” gig (for me, anyway) at Duke University, I had to buy into their insurance and made so little per hour that my take home pay every two weeks was less than $200. But, hey, at least I had dental and vision- right? Pretty awesome when you can’t afford food or electricity. My savings account stood at $25 for nearly five years. There was no money to travel or move. When I took this fellowship that initially brought us to Australia, we landed here with exactly $1000 to our names, no jobs and nowhere to live. It was a damn leap. That kind of adventure is not for the faint hearted. Lucky for us, we’d been poor for so long that it just felt natural to be piss-broke. A ramen noodle dinner feels pretty fancy when it’s a brand you’ve never had before. 

So fancy

Okay. Let’s talk about social ties. You ever been hugged by someone so tight that you are awash with so much love that you can’t breathe? But also, you really can’t breathe because they are literally crushing you to death? Yeah- that’s the love we get in the South. The kind that wants you so close it would rather you die than break the embrace.
The kind that continually asks when you’re coming “home,” even though you’ve made it clear that your home is the place you’re living now. The kind that points out your accomplishments with pride tinged with distain and mockery- because look who’s too big for their britches. The kind that says things like “y’all soun’ diff’rent- must be pickin’ up an ax-scent.” The kind that makes your friends cry out for help from you, even though you are literally on the other side of the globe and there’s nothing you can do but love love love them with that crushing hug from afar. The kind that reminds you not to forget where you came from- as though you could. 

I have a cousin* that was awarded a substantial scholarship- but the university was further away from home than their parents were comfortable with. Two hours. A two-hour drive, straight shot. The family could not bear the thought of their baby moving away to “the big city” (read: they didn’t want an 18yo adult to move to a moderately-sized university town a few hours away). Their friends were all starting to work at the local Dollar Tree and have babies- they wouldn’t be able to visit much. No one ever said straight-out that they should, but this young person ended up turning down a FREE RIDE to college because they didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. They turned out just fine and are doing very well now in their industry, but I use this story to make the point of just how strong the strands of the social web are. Nobody told them not to take the scholarship, but they knew damn well what the expectation was. Stay home or else we might lose you forever. Even though most on the Hillbilly Highway end up right back where we started, there are a few who don’t. And the South doesn’t know how to manage the ones who don’t want to return. And what if – godforbid, they accidentally up and turn into a Yankee? 

* I hope this cousin doesn’t mind me using them as an example- it’s just that most of my other cousins are in jail, on parole, have been or should be. No shame in it- and it makes for great stories- just not the one I’m trying to tell today. 

No reason for this photo- just a really cool sunset

Even though there are SO many more reasons, I have to end this soon. So I’ll wrap up with this: being in the Hillbilly Diaspora hurts. And it’s scary. And it is hard. 

Leaving the South is performing open heart surgery on yourself. For all the reasons I mentioned above, but also because no matter where you land- you’re likely to be alone. If you’re abroad, the chances of there being another immigrant from the US South is even slimmer. We don’t get out much, you see.
People are like “oh! have you met so-and-so, they’re from Colorado” and that’s basically asking a person from Turkey if they know someone in the Netherlands (a bit of hyperbole here, I know, but roughly the same distance between the places). The food is different, the people are different, the climate is different. And unlike our counterparts from Colorado, who ship their trust fund babies out all over the place*, Hillbillies are alone out here. 

And we are often misunderstood. 

*No hate on Colorado, it’s just my experience that the vast majority of rich transplants I’ve met are from there. Probably also seeking to escape, but I can’t speak on that.  

Facts

“What’s ‘grits’,” the woman at customs sneered at the suitcase full of food I had brought back after my last trip to the US. Try to explain grits to people who don’t even use corn meal for anything. They don’t even sell it here- I have to go to a special import shop to buy masa, for crying out loud! 

Try convincing someone to play cornhole and see what their faces do: “did you just say… corn HOLE?”

Tell a story about shooting cans off a fence when you were ten— no, not with a bb gun. 

Go ahead and ask for hot sauce or iced tea at a restaurant. See what happens. 

Wear cowboy boots and short shorts and see how many people ask if you’re from Texas- WE ARE NOT ALL FROM TEXAS… and that’s a different South, anyway. Like Florida’s a different South. No, I can’t explain it- you just know when you know. 

And…. I gotta take a deep breath on this one….. Biscuits. You’ll have to forgive me if I close my eyes to collect myself anytime someone says “oh- you mean scones.” No. I do NOT mean scones… I am breathing through the urge to throw this whole damn fry pan of hushpuppies against the wall. Scones are hard tasteless things Yankees eat. Biscuits are biscuits. Now get out of my kitchen. 

Cornhole, grits and Texas Pete

And that’s all the external stuff. What about that heart clenching squeeze that comes when you hear about big things happening. Weddings, birthdays, illnesses, deaths, holidays, new babies, new jobs, and new love interests. You’re far away, missing it all. And even when nobody else is guilting you about it- you feel it. 

When you wake up to the sweet-heavy scent of mock orange and, just for a second, it smells like honeysuckle mixed with wisteria and you want to cry from how much you miss those vines. 

When you feel your inner mean-ass self dripping the honey-venom that is “Bless her heart” and someone hears you and doesn’t at all understand what that means and then you’re stuck.

When your child accidentally drinks the fry oil out of the jar in the window sill, thinking it’s sun tea, and you laugh and laugh and nobody around you understands what any of those things are or why there’d be confusion. 

When you finally find out that there’s a restaurant called “Carolina Soul Food Kitchen” near you, owned and operated by a family actually from NC (!!!) and you get your hopes up, just to see that they closed down a few months ago. I didn’t cry (that’s a lie- I cried). 

Mike, Nigel and Isaac Perry of Carolina Kitchen- stolen from their defunct Facebook page- looks like they’re Carolina fans, but I don’t know about sports ball

At the moment, I can’t explain publicly what all is going on with our immigration stuff. This is entirely because we don’t quite know ourselves. But I can say that we are waiting on some things to fall into place that are not 100% certain to happen. We do have a Plan B, but even that is up in the air. We have no Plan C at the moment, but I’m working on it- but it is not moving back to NC (don’t even “why not” me- if y’all knew, you’d know). 

But, for now, for today, we’re here. The kids are happy, B & I are happy, we love our friends and neighbors, schoolmates and co-workers (most of the time).

We’ve convinced our neighbors that cornhole is cool and found another Southern boy for B to play trucks and such with.

We grill out (and I will die on the hill that it is NOT bbq- despite whatever Aussies say) a lot and put our feet in the ocean sometimes- but not the river, because there’s sharks in there.

We take the dogs for walks and eat terrific Thai and Indian food and continue our search for a decent Mexican restaurant.

We get introduced to people from Colorado and shop at the market where you can hear families bickering in at least six different languages.

We buy produce we don’t recognize, google how to prepare it, and then  either love it or feel deep regret about our choices.

Hard choices may need to be made soon. And we’re readying ourselves to make them. But either way- we are officially part of the Hillbilly Diaspora- and even though it’s lonely sometimes, I don’t regret it. I just wish there was more of y’all out here with me. 

Still in Oz- Somewhere Over the Rainbow

The Bell

My mother has started using the phrase “you can’t unring that bell.” She spouts it frequently in our monthly-or-so phone calls – always in context of something she needs to do or wants to say to someone, but fears the consequences of that action. I don’t know where she picked it up, and it annoys the shit out of me, but it has become a repetitive part of her monologues and so I have to live with it. And, let me be clear here- I am not one of those “accept the things we cannot change” yahoos. I will bulldoze those things I cannot accept, but I am also of the “pick your battles” mentality and so I do little more than roll my eyes when she blurts out this boring little phrase (you didn’t know how many cliches you were in for with this post, did you? It’s cool- I’ll note them for you with this little star ★ from here).

But, I have made it a practice to investigate those things that irritate me. Why does this saying get under my skin★? And for those of you thinking “well, also, parents just tend to get on our nerves in general”- I concede you that point. As a parent myself, I can unequivocally attest to the fact that we are obnoxious. It’s part of the job description. But I digress★.

Mom & Me, 1978. Maybe the only time we ever looked in the same direction.

So, anyway. The phrase “can’t unring the bell” means you cannot undo a thing that has been done. And that’s true. But here’s the thing: you can’t live life in fear of consequences.

Let me restate that. 
YOU CANNOT LIVE LIFE IN FEAR OF CONSEQUENCES!!!!

Every action has results. Some are good, some are not. And, sure, paralysis is an option too. You can absolutely do nothing- tiptoe around★ every bell, but that also comes with consequences. By avoiding one action, you are taking another. We’re all just ringing bells all over the place, all the time. Life is a cacophony of bells. At least ring the tune you really want to ring.

Look. I’ve been told “that’s easy for you to say★”. I know that I am naturally a risk-taker. I am accustomed to discomfort. That doesn’t mean that it’s any easier for me than anyone else. I am, at my core, a terribly anxious person. I, too, am a person that lays down at night and replays every embarrassing thing I have ever done. And it’s a LOT. I am a troubling character, full of mischief and thus many, many humiliations. Let’s put a positive spin on that and say that I have developed a practice of stress inoculation. The more you practice fear, the easier it is to overcome.
Three years ago today, I landed my family in a strange country on literally the other side of the planet from everything we knew. It was scary. It was the scariest damn thing I have ever done and I’m no slouch★ when it comes to terror. There were moments, of course there were, where I changed my mind- the fear of the unexpected★ was a lot- but I always changed it back. I threw myself off the cliff ★.

First day in Australia. Scared as hell, but happy.

Some days, I still experience what I call “the fuckits” and want to throw in the towel★. Immigration is hard. It is a gruelling and thankless task★. Going back to the States feels like it would be easier some days. But I know that really it wouldn’t be at all. It would not be returning to what we left (at the VERY least, we left in early 2016 before the whole political machine went ass-up★). The context is different, and we are different.

This post started with my mother and I will round it out by returning to her (how very Freudian). Our conversations have developed a cadence. She talks, I listen. She talks about work, about my sister, and then she finally asks me – every time – what my “plans” are. What she is really asking is when we are moving back to North Carolina. She asks me this every. single. time we talk. As though the answer will have changed if she just asks one more time. Or another. Maybe now. But no. My answer is always the same. And it disappoints her, but she’s allowed to be disappointed. Our entire relationship has been built on disappointment. It doesn’t change my feelings.

I rang the bell. And we love the sound it made.

Building

“You don’t have to live every moment like a Hallmark card,” my oldest and dearest friend once chastised me, “just because you’re afraid you’re going to lose it all.”
That was fourteen years ago. Last week, while morphine dazed in the emergency department after my wreck, her words echoed up from the canyon in my mind. I had been trying to remember if I’d kissed my sleeping children before I left for the day, wondering what my last words to them were. I knew I wasn’t dying- but WHAT IF I WAS DYING?

zonked on morphine

Because of my injuries, I’ve had an unusual amount of downtime. This manic, hyperkinetic, overachieving bustle-booty was forced into a lot of stillness. Physical immobility is not something I am good at. I chafe at meditation (WHO CAN STAND TO BE QUIET THAT LONG?!?!) and idleness gives me shingles. But I was forced to plant my butt in a seat and just reflect for a while.

And what I found was that it was those Hallmark moments that came up. I started looking back through this blog. Things I had forgotten about made me laugh and, a few times, cry. We have been in Australia for three years now. That’s a quarter of O’s life, and 1/5th of X’s. This is significant. But much of it has not made the pages here.

The first year was strong- at least bi-weekly posts. The second year there were only four. Last year, there were three- each several months apart.
I re-read every one. And I realised that, though I started the blog so that loved ones in the States could keep up with our adventure, I ended up really only writing for me. I was chronicling my life in this new, strange place and trying to make sense of what it means for me and my family. And I sputtered out because I got a little lost in the shuffle of it all. I was so busy DOING life that I neglected the reflection part, and that’s the necessary part for UNDERSTANDING life.
Damn. That hit me hard.

And I also realised that writing is my form of meditation. It’s my time to harness all the rattling thought marbles into an organised space. It’s also the only time I ever shut up for a minute.

*sidebar- I LOVE to talk. I talk all the time. I talk to anyone, about anything, all the time. Also to myself. And the radio, and inanimate objects. I will talk through a whole damn movie- unless it’s in the theatre, in which case (as everyone who has ever taken me to a theatre movie knows), I sleep through it. I apologise to everyone who has wasted their money on paying for a movie ticket for me. If any of y’all ever want to talk- hit me up- I’m also a great listener!

 

Looking back through these past three years of writing, I noted that a theme emerged for each year:

Year One – 2016 – Adjustment. We fell onto this continent with a few pieces of luggage and the knowledge that we had no idea what was going on, how to find out, and that we would have to re-organise ourselves as individuals and a family in this strange land. It was a confusing year.

Our first-ever photo in Australia

 

Year Two – 2017 – Establishment. With Bambi-legged determination, we made the hard decisions to make it work to stay in Australia. We sold our house in the States and threw everything we had into this project. It was a difficult year.

On top of the Story Bridge, planting our flag in this place

 

Year Three – 2018 – Nesting. Things started to fall into place. I turned in more to the home life. Bringing beloved items and our dog from the States, moving furniture around, forging bonds with neighbours. It was a tender year.

Our nest is built, so we take to the air

 

Now we are entering Year Four – 2019 – Building. Since my accident on the 7th of January, I have taken the time to think very intentionally about what it is that I want to get out of this year. Now that my nest is padded, it’s time to get out of it. The accident reminded me of how fleeting our time is here. So, it is time to build.

I read this book while healing, and was totally inspired. Say YES.

I am focused on building my career. Things are taking off with that this year and I am so excited for my upcoming assignment. I love travel, and I love a challenge. This work is going to have both in spades.

I am focused on building my relationships. I am spending time doing things with my husband and kids that they love, even if I don’t care for it, because I love them. I am going out with friends and agreeing to meet up with strangers at events, even when I am feeling very home-ish, because it’s important for me to be with people besides my family (I’ve mentioned I talk constantly, right? They deserve a break).

I am focused on building my relationship with myself. I have had both a breast cancer scare and a traumatic accident within a nine-month period. I have lived 41 years on this Earth and have no guarantee for another. I often put my own needs behind those of others because it gives me joy. But I also like being nice to myself. I fucking deserve it.

I am focused on my writing. It is at once a part of my Self, but also a thing in itself. Something that I love and have neglected too often over the past year. So I’m making a commitment to just sit down and write. Some will make the public blog, but I am also going to return to my work on the memoir. It will be available in the private “Members Only” section. If you are interested in keeping up with that, and ONLY if I know you personally, contact me directly and I will give you the password.

So, yeah, my friend was right. I don’t have to live life like a greeting card. But my accident reminded me that life is delicate, and I could lose it. I want the Hallmark moments, damn it.

Eclipse: From Stars to Dust

The evening before the lunar eclipse, the moon hung fat and dusky orange in the sky. It was so close that it seemed I could reach up and scoop it out of the sky and pocket it like a Hi-Bounce ball. Speckled in a line leading away from it were five visible planets- Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars.

I’m not usually one to take notice of celestial events, but this felt somehow different- something special. Or, perhaps more accurately,  I’ve been keeping myself open for meaningful things. The past year has been a series of kicks in the teeth- Life trying to get my attention, to help me focus on clues and cues as to what is really important.

And, so, at 5am the morning after the “mega-moon,” I shook 11yo O awake to watch the full lunar eclipse. When we got out to the porch, bundled in our fuzzy blankets, there was already a slight shadow on the top right corner of the moon, which now glowed a halogen white-blue extra-bright. Mars was visible, raging red up to the top left of the moon.

Oskar and i chatted about science and the universe, the difference between cookies in the US and Australia, what we would do with a million dollars, and a book the school librarian suggested to him, that he returned and asked her to remove from the collection because of its racist depictions of Native Americans. Over that half-hour, the Earth’s shadow crept over the too-bright moon, staining it a deep red to match Mars.

At 5:30, the eclipse was complete. The neighbourhood was still dark and quiet. O and I sat in the silence of the moment- absorbing the marvel of the night sky- each in our own thoughts. A short time later, we retired back to our beds for a few more hours sleep.

lunar eclipse
Photo stolen from the internet

 

That day, I get a text from my friend, E – a link to a news article. I read that an old friend had been killed in a collision with a tractor trailer. He was 42 and left behind three children. E told me that, only the week before, he had been talking about how excited he was to have closed on a new house for his family.

A was one of the nicest, kindest guys I’ve ever known. I met him and his brother when we were all may 15-17 years old. They used to come party at the gross punk/metal house I lived in. There was always an air of menace surrounding us. We were angry young people- the poor and neglected, the shithouse drunks and paint sniffers, the fighters and bomb builders. But A was always nice, laughing and joking, calming the situation. And I never saw him throw a punch- that’s saying a LOT for our friend group at that time. Maybe I don’t remember everything, maybe I’m painting too glossy a picture of him- there may be other stories, other memories- but these are mine and I choose to trust them. Our paths crossed over our adult years, often at private parties, and he was always as respectful and kind as I remembered him being as a teen.

We have reached the stage on life where our friends have (mostly) stopped dying from their own folly and are now being taken out by random tragedy, illnesses and suicide. There is no more strange “comfort” of having figured it would happen sooner or later. We’re past the overdose years, the drug-deal turned robbery/murder days, the misadventures- falls and train impacts and consequences of all stupid risks we took just because we could. We’re not leaving behind friends who shrug at the news, even when it hurt, but rather those that can’t catch breath at it. Though we hold death as inevitable, we all think we can stave it off just a little longer. The youthful devil-may-care attitude has been replaced with the idea that we made it through our 20s and 30s, so we must be on our way to old age now before we succumb to the reaper.

But that’s not so. And when death happens, we’re all a little dumbstruck.

I searched through all of the photo albums I brought with me to Australia for pictures of A, knowing there must be one- at least one- but I couldn’t find him there. Perhaps he’s in the box of loose photos I left in a box in my in-laws’ attic. Maybe he just somehow managed not to make it into my collection. It nags me to think that there are people from that time that I don’t have captured on film. The best and worst days of my life are becoming a hazy forgetful blur now. Chapel Hill Boot Crew, Bull City Syndicate, and various peripheral social group members are fading into the bog of middle-aged amnesia.

As a child I dreamt of Australia. It was the destination poor Alexander yearned for during his Terrible, Awful, No Good, Very Bad Day. It was a wild, mysterious land full of adventure and curious creatures- enchanting and deadly. It was literally the furthest point away from the place I had come from, the place I felt so trapped and suffocated by. A place you could disappear in. I hold no illusion that I was alone in this. Nearly every American thinks it was their own special dream to escape to the outback. I, like so many, envisioned a different life down under- one I could choose the framework for, be the self I felt I couldn’t be in my hometown.

Now I am here, trying to remember people and events from there and who I was then. There are things we forget, and things we choose not to remember. Sometimes important information falls through the cracks in between.  Other times it is replaced with different important information.

There is a sub-clause in the Queensland Department of Transport and Main Roads “Fauna Sensitive Road Design Manual” that addresses the matter of lighting on and near roadways. The guidelines restrict the placement, height and luminosity of street lights so as not to disturb nocturnal wildlife in both rural and urban areas. The result is long stretches of darkness come nightfall, punctuated by only the dimmest of lights.

In these pockets of evening, it is easy to see clear to the next galaxy. I stare up again and again at the night sky noting which planets are aligned in the sky, allowing my mind to travel across space and the spaces between.