Standing on the edge of the highway I held a sign that said “London”. It was cold, early spring, and I was hitching from Newcastle.
I was nineteen, and the year, 1964. At a pub that evening, a Canadian guy told me, “You know, once it starts it never stops.” He was right and I knew it even then.
Expatriation is an inevitability for certain people. People with prolonged expatriate experiences due to work move through well-known stages of adaption: the honeymoon of excitement at a new place, the disappointment as the downside is revealed, and the final accommodation to it all. Eventually, surely, they go home. And what happens then? Most just carry on where they left off in their communities but others have a hard time readjusting.
We all know about “roots” and what that means in a personal way to each of us. Back then, at age nineteen, I shook up those roots, and if they were not yet dislodged, they also never returned to their original condition.
Restlessness attends to the expatriate personality. What else could make a person leave for a strange place without friends and without knowing the language or the culture? That same drive sent Leif Erikson, Christopher Columbus, and many others on their way into the unknown. It is in the human personality to want to know what is over the next hill, but some people experience that tendency as a deep need.
I don’t even like travelling and I never had an interest in being a tourist. Yet here I am, having lived all over the world and now settling in Indonesia. I returned to my home in the northeast of the USA more times than I can count and every time I left again, not because I didn’t like it but because all my other foreign experiences tugged at my heart and called me into action almost in spite of myself. It just seems so much more interesting “out there” – wherever that may be
Someone back home said, “Oh, I would never move somewhere I didn’t have friends”. But the expat knows that there are good people everywhere and new friends waiting for you. They may not be the old friends that are so precious but they are good friends and could be even better friends if you would only hang around, something that is always a question mark both for you and for them.
And up comes the downside. After yanking on those roots hard and long, they wither and die. You find yourself “out there” on your own. Back home the friends are huddled together around a fire of communal warmth and you are like the wolf circling from the bushes, wishing you could get closer. You are different and everyone knows it. And when you are with them, they talk about their normal lives without much interest in hearing your foreign stories. And why? Because your stories have no connection with their lives or their experience.
Loneliness is a part of the expatriate condition and is part of the artist’s condition. My leaving home had everything to do with two things: wanting to know myself better and wanting to know how I would meet the world and react to it. Those two ideas are central to the artist’s personality, mind, and character. When you are home with the people you have known your whole life and with the burden of their expectations, no matter how benign, you are in a box. An artist wants out of the box.
At first, I didn’t know what kind of an artist I wanted to be or even what that meant. I had the impulse and I had a few notions. I thought I might want to be a writer and doesn’t a writer need something to write about? That was part of it. What I didn’t know then was that I had plenty to write about even if I went nowhere and that the endless rambling and questing for new experiences could be a distraction from that. But those ideas are distant from youth; they become clear with age.
Becoming an artist is a process and becoming an expatriate is a process; both can have a great deal in common. It’s important to distinguish between the working expat who always has home in mind and the expat who can’t go home and knows it, the one who has accepted that as a fact. And there is a distinction also between the person who enjoys art of one kind or another as a hobby and the artist who builds their life around it and makes it a priority.
Recently, a friend, who is a writer and a painter like me, published yet another book. They are good books but without getting the readership they deserve which is typical of the artist’s plight. In his book, he tried to steer aspiring artists from that path with advice about a “practical major” in college so that they might have a “practical career”. As a younger man, I might have seen this as a betrayal of the artist’s quest and calling but as an older man, I sympathise completely. The artist’s life is very tough, its rewards are measured against poverty and loneliness, two heavyweight enemies.
Expatriation also cuts out its pound of flesh when you leave your friends for the third or fourth time, friends who depend on you for friendship, company, leadership, and many things. They tire of your inconstancy and turn their backs. Who can blame them? This is the steep price paid for the expat’s new experiences and for a deepening of one’s artist life. Yet, for me, there was never much of a choice and I am sure that is true for many others like me.
I grew up with a lot of privilege and luxury and all it did was bore me and make me feel like I couldn’t breathe. For me, there was no comfort in materialism. And if poverty has been a burden, at least it has finally made me appreciate what I do have which was not the case earlier on.
These lives, the artist’s life and the expatriate’s life are ways beyond the metaphoric box in which most of us live. They point in a spiritual direction toward spiritual goals, and they are part of what ultimately is a spiritual path. To accept oneself as an artist, to accept oneself as a true citizen of the world, requires a deep exhalation, an acceptance, a letting go. When the supports of a “normal” life are taken away, humility, surrender, and trust falls on you whether you want them or not. Trust? What if you refuse to trust, just cannot do it? Then come the plagues of panic, terror, and depression.
But trust in what? Something, something to discover for you alone. Carl Sagan, referring to “that pale blue dot” of our earth from space said, “Every saint and sinner who has ever lived has lived on that mote of dust in a sunbeam.” Carl Sagan did not have a particular religious affiliation but his perception of creation, our planet, and our lives speak of humility and awe. Ernest Hemmingway, in his short Nobel laureate speech, said this about being a writer: “For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.”