Excerpted from my book.
“Never again just this...”[i]
I look out my kitchen window. What has changed since yesterday? The blue, beyond believable blue, the lush and layered greens of treescapes, all of an early summer’s beauty in one gaze bounded by a window frame. And yet, it is today. One leaf or blossom less or more, who’s to know? I was gone for two weeks, and when I came back, the luxuriant green was fuller, richer, but in a brief four months’ time, it will be golden and orange and every day, leaves will be fewer.
“You never step into the same river twice,” someone has said.[ii] And so, I know: something has changed out there. If I can’t perceive it today, no matter. Just as I can’t perceive slow degrees of change in me—my skin or hair or thinking. But each day brings a few hairs less; my skin a little more freckled from being in the sun awhile at noon; my thinking, which is always being accosted by news or articles or phone calls or the book I’m reading—or even by what I’m writing.
The other day was my grandparents’ wedding anniversary, some 120 years ago. When I wrote the date in my journal, I was suddenly transported back to their fiftieth. I was a little girl in a blue dotted-Swiss dress, meeting the cars in the big barnyard, carrying the presents into the house, so proud. Am I still the same person? It’s incredible to think. Surely, that was someone else. Because I’m nearing my fiftieth anniversary, too, and I can’t quite match those two people: the little girl and the adult I’ve been for some time now.
And so, each day brings imperceptible change, but change for certain. Occasionally, we pause, at a birthday, perhaps, or at New Year’s, and reflect and take stock. Have I changed? How have I changed? What changes will the coming year of life bring? I wasn’t aware, back there in my dotted-Swiss dress, of any change at all in myself. I was shy and a little bit envious of my cousin in her yellow organza, also carrying presents. She seemed more worldly-wise than I, as much as one can be at six! Life has taken us divergent ways; she has stayed in her hometown, I have traveled the world and lived in four countries outside my own. Who could have imagined it? Certainly not I. Staying or leaving, both our lives have brought changes. It cannot be otherwise.
Do I welcome change? As a child, I didn’t. I dreaded each new year of school. I would have stayed home with my mother had I had the choice. Left to myself, I would have stunted my own growth, stifled change. Life has taken me, along with my shyness, into places, mental and emotional as well as physical, where I never would have gone on my own; has forced me, for want of a gentler word, into changes not of my choosing.
There are critical points in our lives where we must choose between change and standing still. Not choosing is itself a choice.
Why would I knowingly join an organization comprised of extroverted, leader-types--I who am an introvert, content to be a follower? It was because of that critical point. There was an easier, more comfortable choice, but the harder choice before me was compelling and drew me on, despite its challenges. Simply, I believed it was right. And that has made all the difference. Could I imagine how it would change me? Of course not.
Paul Tournier, Swiss psychologist and physician, writes in his book, Learn to Grow Old, that change is to be welcomed for the very reason that it keeps us from becoming rigid and immovable. In other words, positive change will help us, in thinking and living, to stay mentally younger and more resilient. I have learned to be thankful for my changes.
Some changes, of course, can be abrupt and jolting, upsetting life and life’s rhythms with finality. My first child going off to college in America while we were still living in Germany was one of those. She was suddenly missing at her place at the table. Her room was empty—till her brother took it over, at least. She was far, far away, and she would not be coming home weekends. A family, devoid of one of its members, takes on a different dynamic. That change, in our family, was repeated several times over.
When we left Germany to move to Hungary, a move dictated by our work in an altered political climate, I grieved. Mornings for almost a year, I woke up thinking, “We can’t go back to Germany. We can’t go back--” I had brought three children into the world in Germany. We had lived there seventeen years and had to leave German friends behind. It was our home. I had been comfortable there. I liked our life.
I did not recover my equilibrium well that first year in Hungary. Everything was different: environment, language, culture, our work. Trent began traveling more often, not just within the country where we were living, but to the various countries of Eastern Europe, all less than a decade from communist rule. Our children still at home were adjusting to a new school in a new country. We had to renovate the one house on the market that was affordable and in the right location. And that, without the benefit of home improvement stores, so ubiquitous in America. On my first walkthrough of the house, I wailed to my husband, “It has no redeeming features!” He had bought it without me, brave man. It was the only way possible for us at the time.
Certainly, my horizons were expanded. Wrestling with a new, daunting language undoubtedly was beneficial for the synapses in my brain, keeping them pliant, they tell me. Shopping for sinks and wall tiles, trying to put in a kitchen devoid of cupboards and appliances was high drama. New working relationships, though positive and helpful, were still new and more. I had to expand, along with my horizons.
Along the way, I began to love that life, too. I was living in a capital city of Europe, a beautiful one with a lot to offer. My own home took on a certain charm, and we welcomed people into it from all over Eastern Europe. My children acclimated; their horizons also expanded. The people we worked with became dear friends. When Trent and I got on the train that would take us inexorably away from Hungary after living there sixteen years, we clung to each other and sobbed.
Some adventurers seek change for change’s sake. Others seek change of necessity. Most of my changes, it seems, have come to me.
And so I know: I am a different person for the gradual, imperceptible—and even abrupt—growth that my changes have brought me. I still prefer predictability and comfort. But perhaps a “comfortable life” is not to be sought for the comfort itself, if the comfort stifles growth.
I’m in my study now. The blue in the little square of window above my desk is fathomless. I feel expansive, energetic because of that blue. Maybe there will be a cloud tomorrow. Maybe it will look the same. But never again just this.
[i] The line is from Micheal O’Sidhail, “A Fragile City”
[ii] Attributed to Heraclitus