We left paradise for the suburbs

We wanted to be closer to family, but life is so much harder here!

Published June 29, 2006 10:00AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

Nearly three years ago, my husband and I made a pretty big life decision -- and have spent the last year or so driving ourselves crazy questioning the wisdom of it!

Let me back up. For several years, we lived in a beautiful, tropical part of the world. Although my husband has a degree (though not a particularly useful one), I do not, and considering that, our jobs were satisfying and quite lucrative. During this time, we enjoyed the comforts of a tight-knit community of other expats (as well as some locals), learned a new language, ate fantastic food and spent our weekends at exciting clubs in the city, or hiking through the jungle just outside our metropolitan abode, cycling, or riding our motorbike along the coast to the beach. We also spent all our vacation time traveling around Southeast Asia, and our experiences there came to shape us immensely. We lived a beautiful life and, together, discovered and indulged defining passions.

Then we decided to leave. It wasn't as crazy as it sounds. Our jobs, though good-paying, were not incredibly secure. The demand for our line of work was easily met by the steady stream of young backpackers alighting on the shores looking for some quick cash and an interesting experience. We felt pretty expendable. My husband and I both wanted careers that were genuinely fulfilling to us, that met a deeper need than just money. We were (are!) getting to an age where if we were going to start all over, we didn't have time to waste. We also wanted to buy a house, grow a garden and start a family -- things that were not very feasible in our tiny apartment in the city. And perhaps the most significant deciding factor was that I am very close with my family, had missed them terribly, and I wanted to live near them, to share once again in their day-to-day experiences.

So we did it. We moved back to the American suburb where I grew up, bought a house, planted a garden and got some cats. I have decided to go back to school and study the language that I fell in love with while living abroad. My husband, meanwhile, has had a very difficult time finding a job in his desired field. Our local economy has never been worse, and we have been struggling immensely to make ends meet. I am working full-time while going to school, my husband is working two jobs and we have put off having children indefinitely -- and we still stress about paying our mortgage bill every month. It feels sometimes like we are just treading water instead of working toward goals that once so inspired us.

I love being near my family. I love my house, my garden, my cats. But we have had a hard time finding a community like we once had. We are finding life in the suburbs dull and gray after living in a real metropolis. And our money woes are eating us both up. We often wonder whether we would be better off returning to our Southeast Asian paradise. But it would mean selling our house, giving up our garden, our cats, and my lovely family. It might also mean my husband wouldn't get the chance to succeed in his desired field, since doing that in this country would not really be an option for him. (As for me, I could still pursue my career while living there.) But maybe these are worthy sacrifices if it means not losing another night's sleep over money, and inviting adventure rather than stress and fear in our lives.

My question, Cary, is how do we know when to give up on our lives here? When do we say that all the cons outweigh the pros? I am so very tired of worrying about my future; how can I have faith that everything will turn out OK?

I read your column every day and I appreciate the way you can read between the lines and see into the heart of a given situation. My mind is so clouded; I could use your brilliant clarity.

On the Fence

Dear On the Fence,

I once had a really great situation. I was talking to the man I talk to about such things, telling him how great it was and how awful I felt that it ended and he said it sounded like it was a really great situation that ended. And I said, Yeah, that's right, it was a really great situation. And he said, Yeah. But it ended. And I said, Yeah, but it was really great. And he said, Yeah. But it ended. And I said Yeah. But it was really great. Like really great.

And he said, Yeah.

It was a great situation that ended.

It sounds like you had a really great situation that ended too. It's hard not to want to make it happen all over again just the same way as before. But that is the Addict's Way: not moving forward toward novelty and challenge but moving backward toward repetition and safety, like you could put that tropical island on a DVD and play it over and over again instead of doing something new that is harder.

I am a creature of habit and repetition and I always want the same high again just the same as before, but that is not a good thing about me but a bad thing that I would change if I were stronger or smarter or more courageous and wiser. I think: That was a very good hit; I want another one just like that. Perhaps you think: That was a very good tropical Southeast Asian life; I want another one just like that.

You could spend the rest of your life trying to repeat that first time. People do. We don't call them addicts. We call them "stuck in the past." We don't say they're pulling levers in a cage like addicted monkeys. But that's what it feels like when you return to the place of your really great situation that ended, looking for what you had. You pull all the levers and nothing comes out. Then you look at the bars of the cage and think, How did I get here? Now I'm really stuck!

So, having left paradise, how do we move forward with reverence for the past? We construct something enduring out of what we have left. We cultivate memory and stories. We work at it. We salvage things and use them again later. This language you acquired, for instance: Language is a repository of memory. The more you work on the language the more you keep the experience alive. It is something you took away that you can keep. There are many things you can keep. But you can't go back and do it again.

Keep this in mind: Whatever you do next will be new. Even if you went back there -- which you could do, it sounds like a nice place, I'm not saying you can't visit -- it would be a new experience. There is not a parking space waiting for you. It's been assigned to somebody else.

You had a really great situation but you wanted something else: to be closer to family, to buy a house and have a garden and get some cats and later maybe some kids. You did those things. It turned out that it was harder. That doesn't mean it was the wrong choice. It was just harder. You have no way of knowing whether getting what you want next will be easy or hard. You need different things at different times and some are harder than others. (People say things that are harder are more valuable but I think some things that are hard are just hard and some things that are easy are priceless.)

This is where making specific, incremental changes can be helpful. You have done a good job of identifying the things that are missing now -- community, the urban experience, a feeling of being untroubled and unhurried. While you contemplate your next move, make small changes. Go see some art. Take a day off. Spend time with your family. Find some like-minded people.

You had a really great situation that ended. Something is next. It's not yet clear what. But you'll know. It'll come to you, maybe dancing down the street in a bear suit, maybe falling from the sky, maybe popping into your head as a daydream as you're eating ice cream. Be ready. It'll come to you.

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