Random sunflowers on street corners across from haphazardly parked bikes is what my life looks like now. The world has changed and I’ve changed with it, thousands of miles away from where I started out, in a sleepy little town nestled in the armpit of Puget Sound. And now I’m writing this from a little kingdom below sea level where coincidentally I also eat an inordinate amount of pineapple, yellow like happiness. A few weeks ago, the city spray-painted giant yellow hearts on the ground all around town to remind us to walk on the right or dismount on busy streets. Although many yellow hearts have now worn off, my delight has not.
It’s a daily gift from my geographical coordinates.
For background, mine is the immigration cautionary tale, the shameful story seldom told of a brain that broke when faced with the reality of America. Life ground to a halt for five years during which said brain never stopped trying kill me. Suicidal ideation is all it knew how to do. For five years. I’m never not queasy every time I unpack this, especially on a continent where no one can understand how this could happen. TL;DR: I’ve never not been insured but I was too cash-strapped to get well since I was completely out of commission, unable to think or function and therefore work.
You’re not supposed to fail at immigration but I did and I chose to be open about it because there’s something deeply dehumanizing about American life but it needn’t be that way. If only health and education were basic human rights, the country would look very different now, fewer people would have died from the ‘rona, and we Euro folks wouldn’t have had to close our borders to keep ourselves healthy, which means keeping Americans out.
The EU chose health over economy.
Put it that way, the absence of US tourists is sorely felt around the 27 member states, many companies have hit the wall and many people have lost their job but life comes first. Here, life always comes first. In my family and in my household, everything else fell to the wayside as we focused on shelter, food, and love, using the internet as a lifeline. For months on end, Paris might as well have been on the Moon rather than just a few hours away from Amsterdam and I had no idea whether I’d ever see my stepmom alive again. It was a deeply disturbing thought which, thankfully, never came to pass although there’s no dislodging it, such is the nature of metastatic breast cancer. Meanwhile, neighbors adopted my parents as a community project, which is also very 2020 because so much good is coming out of remembering, caring for, and nurturing our shared humanness.
Since the summer of 2018, that’s what I’ve been doing too, in some way, shape, or form. I lived out of a suitcase in motion between two continents and several countries for a year, intending to move to Portugal then settling in the Netherlands because train travel is easier than air travel. Or rather, I parked my suitcases for a while and chose to invest in hope, hope I could rebuild a life that works and which affords me shelter and food someone else doesn’t pay for.
Hope is the best distraction there is and my brain has been so busy making hope with words it no longer tries to kill me every day. Instead, it has episodes, which have lessened in frequency.
You can learn to contain them with words. If you want to figure out what you’re thinking, write it down. Silly though it sounds, it’s as close to magic as writing ever gets, plus the hand that holds the pen is unlikely to try and stab you with it. Hands on the keyboard where I can see them remains my coping mechanism of choice when depression strikes back.
However, we do writing a great disservice when we frame the act of using language to communicate universal human truths in strict monetary — transactional — terms rather than relational, societal, or intellectual ones. When words on a page become a numbers game, you’ve either lost the plot or you’re a social media marketer selling illusions, including that of your own success. Repetition is tiresome, and yet it works: It hammers a point home by wearing you down. It’s not about being honest, it’s about being what trends, what pays, what sells.
Watching a 10-year old BBC documentary about Donald Trump last night, I marveled at a quote of his on a wall inside one of his many properties: “As long as you are going to be thinking anyway, think big.” A decade ago, he had already encapsulated the zeitgeist: A nation who fancies itself as a nation of ambitious thinkers and demands constant attention for parlaying dumb greed into success, aspiration, and inspiration.
Remember The Apprentice’s sig tune? “Money, money, moh-ney?”
America is the greatest show on earth and we’ve all got bit parts, alas. America owns much of the backbone of the internet. When Trump sets the tone and you see it reflected across the partisan divide in asinine copy, you begin to fear for the future of words. To anyone whose brain on depression has the same autocratic tendencies as Donald Trump on twitter, this is terrifying. And to anyone who happens to make a living from words, this is also terrifying. What is it about money and America? And what is it about my own relationship with it, needing it yet incapable of wanting it all that much, or at least never as much as people who are prepared to say and write just about anything to get it? Online, you can manifest money with words. Online, you can manifest money with words. Online, you can manifest money with words. (I’ll be sure to let you know if it works but don’t hold your breath).
America is the collective manifestation of The Secret on steroids and everyone is in on it but, of course, people who think for themselves. The joke is on us and it’s called precariousness. If we read The Secret, it’s only because the lowest common denominator made us or someone else said the movie was better. Mediocrity has officially won everything and still the word people cling to Michelle Obama’s famous quote: “When they go low, we go high.”
So I went underground, deep into the bowels and the heart of words, and I spent two years digging them out, one by one, with variable execution. One day, I looked up and I came nose to nose with a sunflower taller than me outside the grocery store. Because now I am someone who goes to buy coffee beans at 4:30PM so I can have a pleasant and productive morning the next day. I plan ahead, I take my wellbeing seriously, and I even sleep although never quite as much as I still need to because, well, freelancer.
But I still get to spend my days steeped in words, those of others and my own, restoring balance in my little universe. Writing is, to me, to my household, so much more than a living, it’s a way of life that informs everything.
It is life.
In the last two years, the words I read and wrote online changed everything: I un-died. Words are what conjured up my current life through random acts of connection, creativity, and love because they contained heart, courage, and curiosity. Little did I do they were only the beginning of not just a new chapter but something I could never have conceived of, much less imagined.
Whenever I feel despondent and down — and who doesn’t in the middle of a pandemic during an election year—I look around and remember where I am.
It helps enormously.
The yellow parka jacket on the coat rack near the front door bears witness to silliness past and present, too. I got it in an elan of enthusiasm about a year ago and, every time I wear it, I turn into the hugging emoji, grinning from ear to ear, arms at the ready. Such cheerfulness used to be inconceivable and now it’s real, whether or not I wear the jacket. Words are like flashlights and shining mine upon the unspeakable is how I battled my way out of my head and back into the world.
Writing is what brought me home to myself, to the continent that grew me, to the languages my heart speaks and new ones it has been learning, like Dutch, poetry, and the odd snippet of code. Everything is possible as long as the heart endures, even editorial kinsugi powered by pixels, data packets, and tireless hope. Somehow, it all made up a new life from many broken parts and I’m never not surprised.
But every time the zeitgeist shifts and cranks dumb up a notch, I bristle with disquiet. Is it getting worse before it gets better or will we keep going backward until we run out of decency, dignity, and disbelief? Is this even a possibility? All writing is political, a radical act of communication, an expression of love to someone or something when you boil it right down to its essence. When was hatred not self-love gone rogue? When was cruelty not self-compassion gone wrong? When was money not a substitute for love? Most days, the internet reads like my inner dialogue under depression. Is it life now? Only on screen? Warmth with a digital sheen? The world has changed but have we changed with it? Wait…
Random sunflowers on street corners across from haphazardly parked bikes is what my life looks like now so I snapped it for you.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor now based in the Netherlands. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.