Examining self-exhile

The first time I exiled myself, I was 19. That’s what my dad called it, ‘self-exile.’ Papa could see it clearly because he had done the same; he left Greece as a foreign student just after the Nazis retreated and the Communists took power.

As a foreign student in Michigan, my Mediterranean Dad learned what ‘winter’ really meant

In 1995, I was leaving the U.S. to claim my own power. I knew myself well enough to know that if I stayed in the local college I had enrolled in after high school, I would stay scared. I would stay chubby. I would stay the same.

For months before moving to England to go to university, I had methodically packed up my pictures, books and clothes, debating which were worthy of my new life. I shipped tea cups I imagined an English university student would need to drink Earl Grey. I packed books that proved I was worthy of my place at one of England’s top history programs. I lugged my artifacts and aspirations through San Francisco airport by myself, though I was shepherded to the gate by my parents and my younger brother Alex. I refused help, even as my heart broke boarding the plane. Leaving was the most courageous thing I had done in my life and yet with every step closer to my seat, the guiltier I felt.

Boarding that flight, I was betraying my family. I was leaving them when things were bleak. My father had lost his tenured professorship because he tried to seduce a student and my mom politically struggled in her job despite having slogged through a Ph.D. late in life to climb the ivory tower. My mom applauded my courageous decision to go away to school and gave me extra money at the last minute. She didn’t have the money, but she gave me a check drawn from her credit card account anyways. My dad wept and held out promised funds, grasping at the one lever of control hem still had. As I hugged them at the gate, I projected confidence and strength. I was faking it. My palms were so sweaty, the heavy duffel bag of books and tea cups kept slipping from my grip. But I kept walking.  I lasted 18 months in England; enough time to prove I could do it, but less than I had planned.

This time, at 41, the exile is for many of the same reasons. I fear sameness and complacency. I believe life is about growth and growth comes from courage not comfort. This time, the books, tea cups and photo frames fill an entire truck, not two duffel bags. This time, I grip my 9-year-old son’s hand boarding the plane, holding tight despite anxious sweat. This time, my faked smile of assurance is for my son, Jack, not my parents. I know Jack can see my phony bravery, but he smiles back, wanting to assure me equally. I realize he is learning to fake it too and I know we were leaving just in time.

I need to write this story because I appreciate only now how few chances we have in life to reinvent ourselves, to change. I need to write it out to remember why I left home in the first place.  When I am feeling lonely in this new life, I want to remember what I can do to build a sense of belonging. I want to capture experiences that will be fleeting but that could be permanent lessons if only I could conjure them when I’m most in need of some truth.

This story is for anyone who understands change takes courage. Have you ever exiled yourself? Have you ever jumped off the cliff of your own life to see what happens, to prove yourself to yourself? Me too.


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