Since my mother’s death almost three months ago, I seem to have a new vigour. Perhaps this renewed energy is down to the act of wringing out as much writing time as possible before it’s my turn to pass on to the next life or nothingness or wherever it is you believe we go to after we die. Or maybe it is simply down to the longer, sunnier evenings and the warm March air.
I have been writing alot and really focusing on work—mine and that of other writers—and yet in the very back of my brain it is as if I am tuned to static. On this frequency I can hear the hum of indecision about whether to stay in Missoula one more year or whether to stick to our original plan and head back to London this summer.
It has been interesting watching and listening to J and E and I, and our different ways of framing this adventure. J wants to stay in the US forever. He has no doubt about this. His only problem about staying here is that there is no work for him. He would need to be in Los Angeles or New York to make the sort of TV docs he made back in London. We are noticing the lack of his salary. A lot.
My relationship to whether we stay or go is more complex. When we first arrived, I felt an odd sense of unease. I recognised the aesthetic of Missoula as that of my home town in Canada. This threw me. Yet the US is not Canada, and this also threw me. I didn’t understand where I was in a profound way. And in a more obvious way, I was missing London: my routines, my support network of neighbours and friends who had bailed me out over the years when E was sick or needed picking up from playgroup when I was stuck on a bus. At the half-way mark of our year-long stay, E suddenly started talking about missing the friends she has made here after months of saying she wanted to be back ‘home’.
When my mother died just before Christmas, all thoughts about Missoula or London were subsumed in grief and the insistent practicalities that surface around death. Now, months later I am back on the teeter-totter (or ‘seesaw’ to my UK friends) of whether to go or stay. I don’t want to say it is consuming me, because it isn’t. But I do find myself thinking about it several times a day.
About a month ago I decided that returning to London was the only choice we had. This was partially prompted by an email from British Airways telling me that I had enough air miles to fly home for free. I never believed you could actually do this. The only catch was that I needed to book by March 8. The free flights were selling out, so I panic-bought a ticket for myself and E back to London on July 26th. Like everything in life, these weren’t free, exactly. But the total of £300 in taxes was not a patch on the £2,000 each these tickets would be normally for this time of year. I was all set to return and felt a sense of calm that the decision had been made. J will be joining E and I in London in the autumn once he has finished a few projects here. This decision isn’t ideal in many ways—primarily because we decided to come here as a unit and there is something unsettling about leaving as disparate entities. But sometimes one can read too much into the symbolism of things.
Then last weekend my old friend Y from Toronto showed up and we headed out on a road trip around western Montana. The huge skies, the empty roads, the bars full of characters and very cold beer, and the constant sunlight flooding the fields and mountains with a golden glow. It was all too much. I suddenly felt a huge ache at the thought of leaving. Of returning to London’s glowering skies which always look as if Josef Beuys has risen from the dead to stretch a slab of grey felt over everything. Even on cloudy days there are no clouds, just an unmodulated whitish-grey, low-lying entity, its only resemblance to sky being the fact that it is above your head. But having grown up in Canada, I think I am hardwired to feel happiest under a big blue dome. I have always struggled with the near constant greyness of London. It affects my moods and behaviour in a way that isn’t good.
And then there is the noise, and the dirt and chaos of the big city. Which of course I love. Always have loved. But a new respect for quiet, clean landscapes and the look of ordered hay bales piled next to unbelievably photogenic barns is beginning to take hold of me. I feel incredibly sad at the thought of leaving Montana. Torn, is the word that keeps coming up. I hadn’t thought of any of these conflicts when we first decided to come here. It all seemed so easy. When we told our friends and neighbours that we were going to live in Montana for a year, the general response was one of excitement, sometimes envy, and at other times plain confusion over leaving one of the greatest cities on earth to live in the middle of nowhere. I have never been very good at thinking about the consequences of my actions. I often jump before I look and this is just one more example. But I am not sure how to be any other way. Even when you think you know what the outcome of your actions will be, life surprises you.
Gone is that simplicity of ‘moving to Montana for a year’. We are seven months into our adventure and any clarity I once had is nowhere to be seen. I have noticed huge changes in E. And so have our visitors. The once painfully shy little girl is now much more open. She is more independent and confident. I think some of this is her age: 7 going on 8. But some of it I think is a result of the freedom she feels here. She can walk home from school with her friends. She can roam the neighbourhood on her own and does so, enjoying the fact that she doesn’t need an adult with her. Seeing her blossom this past year has been like watching an incredible metamorphosis from cocoon to taking flight. And here’s another thing: she talks with an American accent. I didn’t know this would happen so fast. She has adapted to life here and only now and then does she say she misses things from ‘back home’. Today she said she missed the BBC. Yesterday it was our tiny doll’s house in East London. When she says she misses these things, I am not sure she really does or if she is simply remembering them fondly. There is a difference. Can a seven-year-old feel nostalgia?
My friends in London, some of whom I have known for twenty years are irreplaceable. Some days I long to be able to pick up the phone or invite some of them over for dinner. We speak in shorthand and have shared some of the most wonderful and difficult years of our lives. My friends in London are my adopted family. I am who I am partly because of them. But the people we are meeting here in Missoula are kind and open and generous. Would staying an extra year simply make it harder to leave them? Or would an extra year here be a stepping stone to staying forever? Or would we get some of this enchantment out of our systems and feel more willing to embrace the grey skies of dirty old London.
Tonight as I watch another sunset turn the mountains that impossible pink, I still feel torn. I keep waiting for a Eureka moment, for a flash of insight, for an answer to come to me unbidden from inside somewhere deep. But I know that these things won’t happen. I need to make a decision and right now this feels impossible.