Fish Out of Water

"You have a lot going on right now. You are handling it really well," said the OG oncologist on Tuesday in the midst of a blood clot scare and a discussion about freezing my eggs (seriously, that's what was happening at the time, you can't make these things up).

It's a bit of an understatement to say I have a lot going on right now. Cancer. Repatriating from abroad. Unexpected early semi-retirement (ok, I know I am not really retired, but for the moment that's what it feels like). And, I have become a blogger ... the best change of all!

Terraced vineyards that skirt Lake Geneva/Lac Leman just a couple of kilometers outside of Lausanne, Switzerland, the place we called home over the last three and a half years. #nofilter

It was nice of him to say that I am handling it well. The truth is, I am feeling like a fish out of water most of the time, even leaving the whole cancer diagnosis thing aside. 

Without even realizing it, when you are an expat you start to create what is called a "third culture" that's a mix of your home and host cultures. You don't fit here or there. This makes moving home a sometimes uncomfortable experience.

For me, it's little things like feeling totally overwhelmed by the size of the grocery store, and even more overwhelmed by the number of hummus options available. It's feeling like the television is yelling at you, especially cable news anchors. It's being annoyed when a server brings both your appetizer and main course at the same time ... and realizing that in America you could be considered a snob for even noticing. It's getting used to talking about temperature in Fahrenheit and distance in miles again. It's hearing people make comments about the "American" way of doing something being the only or "right" way and cringing. Not because you think you're better, but because you've seen it done another way and work out just fine, sometimes even better. It's realizing that you've started to speak international English and don't always use the American phrasing in conversation, which again, makes you sound like a snob. Repatriation is basically a series of small daily reminders that you're from here, but you left for a while, you changed, and now you don't fit like you used to. 

Not working at a (more than) full time job means that I have now suddenly joined the world of university students, stay at home parents and retirees. I never really knew what people who don't go to work in an office all day did with their time. Turns out they do everything I used to do on Saturday during the week. They go to the grocery story at 2pm. They go to the car wash at 11am. They get pedicures in the middle of the day. In Santa Cruz, they surf and run by the ocean at all hours. They also know what time the mail is typically delivered, when the UPS guy comes, and they can be home to wait for the cable guy without rearranging meetings. I just really hope they don't watch daytime television, which is one misstep I have made of late. Can I just ask when and why Meredith Vieira became an afternoon talk show host?!

The shock and all-consuming nature of a cancer diagnosis -- of contemplating your own mortality, of wondering, even if you do make it, what kind of life you'll be able to lead, of hoping you will someday be healthy enough to responsibly consider becoming a parent -- has rightly and strongly overshadowed these other two major life transitions. 

However, intellectually I know that I am more than this disease. I know that the cancer card isn't a get out of jail free card for life. Despite this, over the last five weeks I have not lived as if this were true. I have let cancer define me, my schedule, my thoughts. So much so that my response to the OG oncologist's statement above was, "Well, you are right, my life as I knew it, is over." I guess there is some truth to that. But, it's not the whole truth. 

After that conversation I started to think more about these other transitions. I've come to the conclusion that if I don't do something to move through them (which in my experience is the only way to successfully complete a transition), I will feel like a fish out of water for a long time in my own country and in my day-to-day. Don't worry, I am not talking about starting the day with the pledge of allegiance or signing up for seniors water aerobics (is that redundant?). I am talking about making an effort to meet new people in my new community who are not doctors, nurses or medical office receptionists. This means going to church or going to yoga and being open to talking to new people. Last night I made one step toward that even though staying home would have been easier, and cancer could have been a great excuse.

Coming home also demands taking the best of what I learned abroad and working it into my life in the United States. Based on my experience repatriating from Mexico many moons ago, I know part of this involves consciously appreciating of all of the truly wonderful things about America. Freedom, customer service, convenience, friendly strangers, the beauty of California's Central Coast, family, friends. It also means taking time to reflect on our time abroad. Reflecting on the good ways in which it changed me so that those changes don't fade with time. It even extends to preserving the new habits and ways of living that we don't want to abandon. Even small things like drinking better coffee and shopping for groceries every day. 

Transitioning to semi-retirement means taking charge of my daily schedule and treating it like a job. Setting objectives and working toward them. Starting the day with plan and executing against it. Even if that plan is to write a post, go to the grocery store, get the car washed, go to the doctor and take a yoga class. Job or no job, structure and purpose to my comings and goings is a necessity. 

I have to admit, it's kind of nice to navigate these challenges. Challenges that everyone has when they move to a new place or retire. Normal people, not cancer people, challenges.