I had a nomadic childhood; now I can't maintain ties

I seem to have lost some part of myself and wish I could get it back.

Published December 11, 2008 11:05AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I want to, need to, rediscover portions of my soul that I have killed off. When I was younger my parents moved around a lot. Not just state to state but all over the world. I have been to 11 schools in different parts of the world and there must be thousands of people I could, if I wished to, call my classmates. I was never sad when leaving and I never had trouble making friends; I blended in just fine with whatever crowd there was to blend in with. My trick was that I never missed friends and relatives whom I left behind. The moment I set foot in a new country, even the moment I set foot in a plane that was to take me away, the friends I made in the country I left stopped existing. I have never written a letter or an e-mail or a Christmas card to anyone, never called, never tried to catch up with people with whom I used to hang out. If I got letters I never replied. Some of these still haunt me at night, for example, this sweet girl I knew from Leicester, England, when I was 10. She wrote me three letters and I never replied. Now I don't even know her last name. Or two wonderful, wonderful girls who were like sisters to me for a year in Pittsburgh who wrote me dozens of e-mails I left unopened. Somewhere deep inside I missed them but the tough outside told me to stay cool and disregard them because I would only get hurt if I did not. I even changed my e-mail address, because just looking at their names was perilous. Then there was that guy I hung out with in St. Petersburg, Russia, a little girl from Brisbane, a girl from Barcelona ... and so on. This way I arrived wherever my parents' careers took us as a tabula rasa. I did not want to hurt anyone, but I also did not want to get hurt myself.

I know that I cannot renew my relationships with these people, they have moved on, like me, and forgotten all about me by now. I don't want to make the same mistakes, though; I want to learn how to miss people.

Here is my situation: My parents settled down in Munich, Germany, 12 years ago and this is the place I call home. I graduated from high school there, I went to college there. I met lots of engaging and interesting people there. Two years ago I met my boyfriend and we fell in love, instantaneously, madly, spontaneously, crazily in love. After three weeks we were both wondering why we pay for two apartments if we stay at each other's places all the time anyway. We moved in together and it was beautiful, friends came over for a glass of wine nearly every night, we went out a lot, we loved each other more and more each day, sex was as good as it gets ... life was fine, finer than fine, IT WAS FINE! (Well, not quite, we had a major trust issue, but that is a whole different story!) I was halfway to my master's in English and American literature and my grades were really good so my advisor urged me to apply for a graduate program in the United States. I applied and got accepted with a full scholarship. The program I got into is a two-semester program; my boyfriend assured me that we could handle being apart for eight months and urged me to pursue this opportunity. So I did and here I am. I did not mean to, but I did what I always do, I forgot. I talk to my boyfriend every day but it just isn't the same. I know that we were happy and loved each other, but I do not feel it anymore. He is so sweet and persistent and he says he understands that I have this self-preservation thing and he does everything to keep it going, but I see what strain it is putting on him and I do not know how long he can keep going. I try to be as happy and loving as I can but I cannot disguise that I feel distant to him and he sees/hears/feels it whenever we Skype. I have been here for three months; this leaves five months to go. I hate myself for it, but I cheated on him here and, although I hate myself for being dishonest (both to my boyfriend and the guy I had an affair with), I am not really sorry. I have also developed a severe crush on someone. Is this a sign that my relationship with my German boyfriend, who was the one as far as I was concerned just four months ago, is over? Or will I get over it as soon as we are reunited? Is this just an ugly personality trait or can I work on it?

Also (this is of course part of the same issue), I have set up a blog to keep my friends in Germany up to date but I failed to write in it since September and I have an unopened e-mail from my best friend sitting in my e-mail account. Please help.

Heartless (that's what my grandmother said when I did not feel like calling for one and a half years)

Dear Heartless,

Now, I'm going to do something in this piece that I've never done before. I'm going to write it straight through just once without editing. That means I'm going to have to think through every sentence before I write it. You see that preceding sentence? I'd really like to take it out. But I can't. I'm not allowed. I'm going to just proceed forward. The reason for this is that I've been torturing myself. In this we may be somewhat alike. I have operated on the assumption that I can take a first shot at it and then go back and fix it. The alternative view is that we are who we are and we proceed as best we can, not looking back but moving forward.

If you're not going to go back and fix everything later, then you have to plan ahead. The previous sentence cannot be expunged. That's the game we're playing. Likewise, your past cannot be expunged. You are the way you are because of how you grew up. You adapted in certain ways. You acquired certain habits to protect your feelings. Don't feel bad about that. It's how kids get by. Now you're an adult but you keep doing some of the same things. That, too, is quite natural. Some of those habits perhaps you can let go of. But you are far from heartless. Rather, you have adopted certain habits to protect your heart, which is probably quite tender and full of feeling.

What I suggest you do is concentrate on what is in front of you. If there are certain actions you can take to ameliorate the effect of your neglect, then take those actions. For instance, you can read the e-mail from your best friend and respond. You can make decisions about the relationship you have begun. You can end it or you can decide to keep it going. These are things you can do. I would like you to realize just how profound an experience it is for me to keep writing forward and not go back and change things, but that is not your chief concern at all. It is just a way of indicating a parallelism between your plight and mine. We both are the way we are because of how we adapted to conditions of our childhood. And we both have a tendency to believe we could somehow go back and fix things. That is the perfectionist habit of writing that has caused me so much pain. But that is not your problem. It is just my experiment.

Before deciding to write one time through without editing I wrote a great many notes. It was, in fact, the uncomfortable habit of trying to fix them that led me to this method. But enough about that. Let us focus on you. By example, what I am suggesting is that you premise your future actions on the assumption that what's done is done. You do not handle long-distance relationships all that well. There are reasons for this. It's not a terrible thing, but it is the way you are right now. So rather than think about ways you might change yourself, I suggest you live the kind of life that gives you what you need. It sounds like you were very happy living with your boyfriend in Munich. Nobody was leaving anybody. It may be, given all the traveling you did as a child, that what you need is to stay in one place to be happy. What a great life! Nobody is rushing off. Everyone is right at home.

Still I have not gone back and revised any of this. It may, as a consequence, lack a certain flash. But it may also be more down-to-earth. I have, however, looked over the preceding to see what else I need to say. I need to say that at times it is helpful to act in a literal way as though what's done is done. You have already had the affair. You can't un-have it. But you can move forward. You can go to Munich and attempt to continue the life that was making you happy. As I picture that life, I sense the fulfillment of a piling-up of days. And I sense the fracturing that comes of travel. It is as though your travel to the United States was a kind of backward step. You stepped back into a realm to perfect it, as I might be tempted to step back into my prose to perfect it. If I know that I can only move forward, I will be more careful about what I say. Likewise, if you return to your boyfriend in a few months and try, from then on, to move only forward, letting the days pile up, steeling yourself against the illusion that you might turn back upon your past and alter it, you may find the happiness that you were feeling before you left.

Many things are possible. He may have changed. In returning to Munich, oddly enough, it may seem that you are attempting to return to the past -- attempting to do the very thing I seem to be warning you against. But I do not sense it like that. I feel that the life you were living was precisely the life that will work for you. It kept you in the present. Also, it is likely that in going to the United States you repeated an old pattern that has caused you so much pain over the years: You left someone you cared about and were unable to maintain the connection.

So I am hoping you try something different this time. What you have been longing for since you were a child was for things to keep going. You have been longing for continuity. You cannot change your past. But you can make a choice to avoid repeating it.

So, because I have deprived myself of the agonizing luxury of infinite revisions, I will simply repeat, and hope to amplify, what I have already said: Please go back to Munich when your studies are complete, and try to live as you were living, one day into the next, together in a place that is your mutual home, knowing where you'll be when you wake up tomorrow, knowing all you have to do is stay where you are and continue.

I know I cannot go back and change any of this, so I am simply going to pray it is sufficient. It is a kind of surrender, this approach. I am not saying I will write like this every day from now on. But I needed to know that there was a way out from the endless and irritating rewriting. And I wanted to be honest: Every sentence is as it first rolled out.

One last thing (this is interesting, isn't it, as last thoughts keep occurring -- as when people wrote letters in ink, there would be those frequent postscripts). Everything that needs to be said need not be said right here. This is a conversation, after all. We can correspond. In fact, not to open up a whole new topic so close to the end of the piece, but that compulsion that often arrives when one has almost finished writing -- that compulsion to go back and make sure nothing has been left out -- seems to arise from the assumption that everything must be said now. But as I say, this is a conversation.

So good luck for now.

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