Friendships {Part 4}

People often ask me what I miss most about Scotland. I am sure nobody will be surprised to hear it is not the weather (parts of Scotland get 250 days of rain a year), haggis (though a sheep’s stomach full of offal is surprisingly good), or even the landscape (which is actually good, see all that rain). You are getting closer if you guess I miss the accent, the ‘could be misconstrued as mean but is really playful’ banter, and generally the ‘we will rise as underdogs’ spirit of the Scot. But the real answer is quite boring because it is so obvious. My friends and family.


I left Scotland knowing I would take a handful of best friends with me. These are friends who have been through it all with me and I knew we could build a transatlantic friendship. These friendships are worth preserving but it is also slightly disheartening because the circumstances of life mean the way these friendships work has to change. All of a sudden you don’t see these people regularly like you used to or share the same experiences. You can't just meet up for a natter or grab dinner together. These friendships require a different kind of intentional work. They take on a new significance in your life. 


It may sound like an awkward thing to say but I also need friends here. I believe we were made for relationship. It would be a bit weird if I only had friends in Scotland and tried to just live in New York without really investing in relationships. I have great deep friendships that are transitioning into long distance relationships but I also need day-to-day friends. Friends that see your life. So they can see when you are having a bad day without you needing to tell them and be there to celebrate with you in the happy moments. You need the friends who can hang out with you last minute. You need the friends who see your vulnerability. I mean I probably could survive without any more friends but I probably shouldn't. 

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So here I am at 30 years old trying to remember how to build friendships again. I watch my son play with a kid in the park and suddenly become best buds. It is all so simple at 3. Just play a game of tag and share a toy car. I don’t know about you but I no longer play with toy cars and I am busy. I have children that require constant love and attention, a husband that requires slightly less love and attention, and we are trying to pastor a church that perhaps needs the most love and attention. With all that it can be hard to have room for friends. I am just not in the friend making sweet spot that was my twenties. 

I may have just admitted I need some friends but no one likes to look like they are desperate for a friend. I think we probably all have hang-ups left over from High School and the pressure to look like you had the 'required amount' of friends. And like dating, being in a state of building new friendships is not always a comfortable experience. The other day someone asked me if I have made friends since moving here. Which is a really tricky question. Needless to say, I spluttered, started to overthink the whole idea, and then tried to get my husband to answer the question for me. My brain was going,

‘Gosh, what even constitutes a friend? In all my life have I ever had a friend?’

It wasn’t my slickest moment. It was like watching a millennial's brain shut down through over-analysis....oh wait it was watching that. I should add this answer came even though I have lots of interesting people I hang out with and I am building friendships here. I can only imagine what my answer would have been if I was feeling all alone. Our culture makes it awkward and uncomfortable to desire some more friends as adults and it judges our worth accordingly. 

But I don't think my awkward situation is exclusive to those of us who have moved country. Maybe you have just moved city, changed job, or gone to college. Perhaps your life stage changed or you had a baby and now your friends are all working 9-5 while you have the afternoon chat shows to keep you company. It could be that all your friends moved away or got married (which is sometimes harder because they drop off the face of the earth and still live on the same street). Maybe, you took a look at your life and realized you need some better friends. 

I think that we should just admit right now that this is normal. If you have never found yourself needing some more friends I guarantee it will happen at some point. Sometimes we just find ourselves in a friendship deficiency and we should embrace that as a standard experience. Because we are no longer in High School it does not have to mean something terrible about our identity. It just means we are humans experiencing human things. When someone admits they feel lonely or would like more friends we don't have to feel pity or look down on them. We should just empathize that this is living. 



Friendships {Part 3}

Moving across an ocean at 17 did NOT do wonders for my FOMO. I mean, it wasn’t even a handy acronym at the time, but it was definitely still a thing.


For any of you who have made a significant move in life, you will know what I’m speaking of. That fear of missing out. More and more this is becoming the story of our world. People living thousands of miles away from the most significant relationships in their lives. Missing out on graduations, holidays, weddings, births....and deaths. Distance is heartbreaking.


Back to 2005. Several of my friends were off to the same university, or still in high school, and I was about 3,000 miles away. That first lecture, I sat in a 400 seat auditorium and didn’t have one person who had known me longer than a week in the entirety of the undergrads that walked on campus. (Granted there were a few masters students who were a part of the church plant team, but no one my age.). And most of these people didn’t really like Americans either. Loooools. The fear of missing out stepped up a notch. Skype didn’t exist at that point. No what’s app. We had instant messenger, emails, or phone cards. Daily life went on, and I was not a part of it. The fear of not knowing what was going on in the lives of those I loved....the fear that we’d drift apart and I’d drift off into a sea of loneliness....though it sounds overly dramatic, it was so real.

Looking back, some relationships have grown and deepened over the years. Others have faded. A part of my life back then, but no less beautiful. For me, a few things have defined the former....

First, I think long distance friendships require real intentionality. I’ve been known to schedule Skype dates over a month in advance. It sounds crazy....but it’s so vital. Intentionality also involves messaging the other person even when they forget to ask. You had a big day last week at work and they didn’t remember to text and ask how it went. Tell them anyway. Be vulnerable. In an intentional way, not in a passive aggressive way.....ha. (She speaks from experience. Oops. Sorry.)


Second, friendships that span the miles require perseverance. Perseverance past the insecurity and fear. A transcontinental friendship can really reveal to you your deep insecurities. Are they forgetting about me? What if they meet someone awesome and stop sharing their life with me? The fear of unworthiness is real. But the reality of the God of love is more tangible than any lie that would try to tear you apart. The antidote to fear is always love. Receiving love, enables us to give it without fear.

Third, I think in ordered for these relationships to thrive there has to be an awareness that both of you are no longer the same person that you were when you lived in closer proximity. New experiences have become a part of who you are. You’ve both grown and changed. And this is a GOOD thing. Not a thing to be feared!

2011. My bridesmaids and I, the week before my wedding. Now they are all long distance friendships! 

2011. My bridesmaids and I, the week before my wedding. Now they are all long distance friendships! 

And fourth? An embrace. Embracing all the transition, the loneliness, the messiness, the pain, the longing, the change, the joy, the laughter, and the uncertainty of it all. Embrace the sharpening iron of friendship.

This started off being about long distance friendships. But here’s the thing.....distance is measured in miles, but also in years. We all have lived lives of distance. And when love travels the distance of miles and years, there’s a beauty that wouldn’t have been there if it weren’t for the deep pain of separation. Physical. Emotional. Mental. The pain breaks you open. And if you’re broken open - broken free from insecurity and lies - more love, joy, and grace can break in.


I am an Ignorant Immigrant 

Most people don’t like being faced with their own ignorance. Like when people are talking about the finer points of the crisis in Syria and you realize, as they use countless names, dates, and acronyms, it’s not as simple as ISIS. Or everyone seems to know about the latest music trend and you realize you haven’t found a new piece of music since 2012 (no, just me?). It is uncomfortable to feel like there is a whole section of knowledge you have failed to acquire. Generally, we avoid such feelings. That’s why most of us tend to surround ourselves with people just like us.

My first time in America and New York City. What a baby. Circa 2010.

My first time in America and New York City. What a baby. Circa 2010.

The thing is when you become an immigrant you pretty much submerge your life into a pool of ignorance. It is astounding what I do not know and what I have had to work out since moving here. A few months after arriving I had to ask a woman I had known for a very short time how to post a letter abroad. After texting her I realized ‘post’ is not even the right word here. (I should add that this woman, let’s call her Becca, is an actual Godsend. When I first got here she put up with my stupid questions regularly and graciously answered them in detail.)

Now you may be thinking don’t be such a drama queen Ailsa just work it out. And I assure you I am just working it out. But it is not just mailing a letter. A lot of knowledge that you assume is universal, is not.

How do you pay rent here?

How do I go to the doctor if I am ill?

How do I find my son’s social security number that has gone missing?

What do the coins mean?

What is the public transport etiquette? (And there definitely is one. I can walk you through Edinburgh’s but I am sure I screw up NYC’s all the time.)


The sheer amount of things I don’t know is tiring. Being faced with your own ignorance on a day-to-day basis is tiring. Now please don’t get me wrong, I do not say this as a plea for an Ailsa pity party. I am working out how to live here. The everyday ignorance will subside. I will work out how to write in American English, how to get a cervical smear, and how to buy my groceries without spending a small fortune. It is the underlying ignorance that will last longer.

I would like to think I have an understanding of America that I have built from being married to a native, a healthy dose of the back catalog of Shonda Rhimes, and my obsession with American politics. I’d like to think I have nailed it from afar. But I can’t even fathom what I don’t know. I literally don’t know what I don’t know about the unspoken cultural history that has built this nation. Like all countries, America has a history and multiple (and sometimes contradictory) stories that underlie the unstated values. And it is a rare person who can consciously explain the values and all the stories to you.

It can be hard to just sit in your own ignorance. And even harder to admit to everyone you are just getting to know that yes, you are this ignorant. It is uncomfortable to realize and admit. Honestly, it is just a bit embarrassing. But at least I know I don’t know things here. So I am open to learning. I have to ask questions and listen in order to understand what I am looking at.

Our last Scottish elevator for a while.

Our last Scottish elevator for a while.

But perhaps you are reading this living in your country of birth and thinking ‘No way am I moving abroad, ya crazy.’ Fair enough. However, I still have a challenge for you. Work out what you don’t know. Find your points of ignorance. We make assumptions about our own culture. We make assumptions about other people. We especially make assumptions about those that are a little different to us. The chances are we are ignorant of the culture and life experience of many of our fellow citizens and many of our fellow humans on earth. So join me in this learning experience. I can’t promise it will be comfortable but ignorance isn’t bliss either.


Immigrant, Not Expat

This week I went to renew my massively out of date US passport. As I took my napping child through the metal detector, passed off my phone to be kept in a compartment for me, and stepped into this tiny (and very full) waiting area, I couldn’t help but smile to myself. Anywhere in the world where official American documents are processed involves such a high level of security.


And then I began to pay attention to those around me, because of course I didn’t have my phone to distract me for the better part of an hour.

Here I was, in close proximity to a diverse group of people like me. Who, for various reasons, were living far from their land of birth. There was an elderly professorial type gentleman (who was rather snippy and demanding to the poor woman behind the glass), an academic proofreading JSTOR articles, a young family of African descent there to register their son’s birth, a rotund white man with wild hair down to his shoulders applying for his grown son’s new passport,....and me. All of us. Common legal standing. Common nationality.

Immigrant. ‘A person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country.’

As a white, middle class woman….why do I call myself an immigrant? I grew up in a time when Americans who lived abroad used the word ‘expats’ to describe themselves. The term harkens back to an era of romanticising colonialism, widely understood to signify a person of skilled work, an artist, or a professional who chooses to live outside their native country. People who have been sent by or recruited by companies or governments.

Wealth. Power. Autonomy.

Immigrant? I’m sure the connotations are springing to mind already. They come to leach. Take, not give. Cause problems. Get in the way of our progress. They come, backwards and regressive, to complicated our national identities.


Traditionally, any white person coming to live in a foreign country has been called, or called themselves, an expat. Including me. Whereas, any person of a different skin tone or class has been dubbed ‘immigrant’ or ‘migrant worker’.

Words matter. What we label ourselves and each other….it matters. Words have power to break down the dividing walls of class, nationality and wealth. This is why we choose to call ourselves immigrants. To identify with the outsider….because, quite simply, we are. 

This is not to say that I want to minimise the struggles, injustices, and traumas that are felt by a refugee or immigrant who is fleeing from oppression….not at all. Of course I do not have an experience of what that feels like, or the courage it takes to journey to a new land that so often wants to reject and oppress them.

But hear me out. When we recognise that some words are rife with colonial oppression and anglocentrism, when we come to see the inherent problems with choosing to define ourselves with labels that set up these dividing walls between each other….we can do one of two things. We can either close our eyes and ears, and get offended and defensive. Complaining of political correctness and semantics. Or, we can come with humility, recognising our privileges (yes), but also choosing to honestly call ourselves what we are....

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People who have all come, with different histories and perspectives, for one reason or another, to a new land. And are attempting to make it into our home.


The 'Inbetween'

[Disclaimer: This piece was written just over a month into Ailsa’s move from the U.K. to the USA. It is a peek into the emotions of someone mid move. You could call it a bit raw.]

Before moving country I did not anticipate the speed that I would feel disconnected from my home. I lived in Edinburgh for 11 years, for goodness sake. I have done all my adulting in Edinburgh; signing my first lease, paying all my bills, getting married, and giving birth...twice. It is a remarkable city combining historic architecture and sublime views, under quite a lot of dirt and social problems. It was my home. But ‘was’ is an important word there.


I feel adrift from Edinburgh but I also look on at New York like I am seeing it for the first time. I feel no responsibility for it. It doesn’t quite feel like it is mine to own, love, and criticise. I have to be extra nice to it, careful, and considerate like a new person I have just been introduced to at a dinner party. Not like my old friend Edinburgh who I would call dirty, aloof, and enchanting. But now I have the odd perspective of an outsider and observer of both cities. Neither is my home right now. I am left in the ‘inbetween’. I am rootless. I don’t belong anywhere. I am connected to nothing here apart from my husband and children.


But, the real shocker? I find the ‘inbetween’ quite comfortable. It is easier to be a bit indifferent to everything and just float about observing, taking, and using without really investing. Last week, we moved into an apartment with our names on the lease. So as you do the husband trooped to Ikea and dropped a substantial amount of money on flat pack furniture and too many plants. It took me a few days and some more money haemorrhaging to realise that part of my brain was quietly freaking out (I am slow on the uptake). Subconsciously, I was worried we had burdened ourselves with so much stuff that we could not easily move again. I realised my mind had been repeating again and again for a few days, ‘How will we move? How will we move? How will we move?’ It was my quiet theme song to our home furnishing shopping.  I have even started having stress dreams about packing up and moving country. The irony being I never had this dream before we actually moved country.


Now, don’t get me wrong we love our apartment. We have no plans to move again soon. In fact the husband regularly talks about how we can accommodate both our children in it as teenagers (bearing in mind here that our eldest is 2). But it turns out part of my mind was happy to live agile and unattached. Rootless. Carefree. Unburdened. Ready at any moment to sprint away without any burdensome items of Scandinavian furniture or a single care in the world.

And while that might be admirable when it comes to not having too much stuff, it is a problem if I am applying this rootlessness to relationships and community.

It is a problem if I am happy to just exist here caring only about the small family unit I chose and birthed.

It is a problem if I live here like I could be living anywhere just taking from the city.

It is a problem if I purposely don’t take responsibility for the injustice in my city, don’t engage with and love the people I live beside, or don’t see myself as partly to blame when my community has problems.

My natural mode is to stay in the ‘inbetween’ because that is where you can stay free of hurt. If you do not care or engage you cannot get angry, or sad, or blamed.


But I did not move country to stay rootless. So here comes the next stage of my move. I have done the packing. I have done the unpacking. Now comes the emotionally vulnerable bit. It is time to get out of the comfortable ‘inbetween’. Wish me luck.


Cultural Belonging.

Having lived my whole adult life in another nation, my relationship with my birth country has been complicated.


You don’t sound like you’re from here. Where are you from?’


Nearly thirteen years in, and I still get asked this question on a regular basis. I’ve started to enjoy messing with people a little bit. I say, ‘Oh I’m from here.’ I want to add, ‘My family and I paid loads of money to now be in possession of a wee red passport that says I’m legally entitled to all that you are entitled to.’ Mic drop. But I refrain. I can’t really blame them. I do sound different after all.

The follow up question is inevitable…. ‘Oh I mean where are you really from?’ And there it is...the emotion of displacement. Cue launching into an explanation as brief as I can muster, and moving on.

‘You don’t sound like you’re from here’....And I never will. That Scottish brogue is a beautiful thing, but very hard to put on well. Trust me. I’ve tried.

We moved over when I was barely 17. Immediately I started to make adjustments to what I called things. We didn’t have to learn a new language….but we might as well have. There was a whole host of cultural assumptions, references, and understandings that I had no knowledge of. Conversations that happened around me that I could not join in with because I hadn’t grown up with the same television shows. Constantly having to explain who I was to people. They had no reference for me, of course. No one had really known me before the age of 17. They didn’t know who I was. 


I remember, in my first year of university, deciding to just stop talking for a bit. Or answering questions as briefly and quietly as possible. Maybe people won’t ask me the question. Or launch into a tirade about why the USA is ruining the world. Or misunderstand my meanings. Or make assumptions of who I was simply because of my accent.

And then, every couple of years, when I went back to visit extended family and friends, I would hear another statement…. ‘Oh wow you don’t sound American anymore!’ No longer belonging. No longer home. Life moved on back there, and I didn’t fit in anymore. And so it began, the grieving process of losing a home. Even now it can still hit me at random moments…

So I would go back and forth. Sometimes happy that people thought I didn’t sound American anymore. Fist pump to myself, I’d assimmilated. Boom. Other times, the feeling of homelessness, of being consistently misunderstood, would overwhelm me. Sometimes I would look back at my birth country with sentimental fondness, at other times I would shake my head in disbelief at the same worldviews I had once held.

Immigrant life can be emotionally chaotic....swinging between both a highly critical outside perspective on where you are 'from', whilst also being wildly nostalgic and semi-patriotic. Paradoxical. Third culture, is what they call it. A nice name for someone who feels like they have no real home. They'll never fully be a part of their birth culture again, and they'll never fully be a part of the one they live in now. No matter what a passport or birth certificate says. Cultural belonging is like the ability to breathe. You don’t really notice how important it is until you are waylaid with a cold and can’t sleep. So deeply a part of you.


But over the years I have begun to love this. Even in the hard places. Because it's served to remind me where my true Home is. We are all sojourners in a strange land. Awaiting the making new of all that is lost, and all that is foreign. Outsiders brought in.

As C. S. Lewis put it, describing Aslan's country, 'I have come home at last. This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now.' {The Last Battle}

This is a discussion that we will probably be coming back to time and again on this blog. For now, I leave you with a question.

Where do you get your sense of belonging from?