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There have been a few days this year where I’ve wanted very badly to just throw in the towel, catch the next flight home, and go home to my mama. Our first day here was a prime example of that, and many of the ones following. In the past months, I have (thankfully) felt that way much less often. But yesterday I came close to feeling that way again, reminding me once more that I am not an island. Nor do I like being one.

This is not intended to be a pity party or sob story — oh yeah, poor me, living in Portugal and traveling to far-off places. No. That is not my intention. I recognize the amazing privilege we have in taking this year off, and I am immensely grateful to whatever fates aligned my path with Gabe’s lo those four years ago now. (Has it really only been that long?!)

So when I say this year is hard, it’s not “hard” in the same sense as giving birth, or learning how to care for a toddler and a newborn at the same time. It’s not “hard” in the same way as a long-distance relationship is hard, or training for a triathlon, or starting a career in a new field. It’s certainly not anywhere in the same league as having a loved one with a chronic or terminal illness — that I can say from experience. (All of these are things that close friends of mine have done while we’ve been away, by the way, chapters of their lives that I’ve missed, conversations I haven’t had. The new babies are by far what I regret missing out on the most.)

But with all of that said… sometimes, this year has been and continues to be just that: hard. Difficult. Sometimes, it feels as though time is just flying by me, and I’m loathe to leave this lovely city and go home to our regular lives. Other days, my whole being longs to be Home, to smell the ocean, have lunch with my mom and coffee with a girlfriend, even to see all the crazy fellow endorphin addicts in my morning spin class. In case you haven’t guessed yet, recently I have been trending towards the latter side of that spectrum.

One day last week, I took a look back at my calendar from last May to see what I was doing a year ago. I was shocked at the amount of stuff I saw on there: spin, lunch, and coffee, yes, but also therapy sessions, wine dates with girlfriends, movies with Gabe (OK so I still do that one), meetings, dinners out with friends, book club… the list went on and on. I tend to think of myself as a fairly unsocial person, but my calendar tells a different story. I commented on this to Gabe, who was somewhat less surprised. He said, “Yeah, I’ve never really believed it when you said that you weren’t social.”

OK so maybe I am more of a social animal than I thought. While here though, I’ve welcomed the chance to be solitary, to lick my wounds after a difficult few years, to put myself first for a little while after learning the hard way to put others’ needs before my own. Some days though, it’s not as fun. And yesterday was one of them.

Being here has really made me understand the importance of having a social group, not just for the company, but as a support network. Last May, I was just coming out of a very difficult period in my life, so every one of those lunches, dinners, coffees, or what have you was not just a social outing, it was a way of healing myself. For a long time, I thought that my friends weren’t being supportive or understanding enough. Now, I see that you don’t have to talk about something directly to be supportive — any social contact helps.

It’s during my darker days that I realize how thin my support network really is here. With time, I know there are a few of our friendships here that could turn into very strong relationships. But I don’t have that time, so a part of me has always held back from laying down the groundwork for that next level of friendship. Sometimes, I regret not having done so.

Thanks to the wonders of Skype, however, I have an easily accessible virtual support network. Within the past twenty four hours, I have had a video conversation with my mom and brother — always guaranteed to cheer me up — and a quick “natter” with a girlfriend from grad school as she walked to work this morning. It’s not the same as actually having breakfast with my family, or nattering on for hours over coffee or a glass of wine, but it does make a huge difference.

So. The lesson of the day, brought to you by Skype: when life is hard(ish), reach out and touch someone. No matter how far away.

(As a side note: This weekend we’re off to points north — Coimbra, Porto, along with the Pope, and then the mountains near the Spanish border — so I’m not sure how much I’ll be able to write. But I will take lots of pics, of course, and post them when we return next week. Til then, abracos e beijinhos, or hugs and kisses.)

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Yesterday was May Day, and a national holiday here in Portugal. While I did not have either the occasion or ability to celebrate, many other people did, and all afternoon we could hear drums, music, and amplified voices drifting up from a parade making its way down the Avenida.

They were still marching when we went to the gym in the late afternoon, and on the way back, we wound our way between big groups of people holding signs and banners — presumably the labor unions. Some of them were dressed in traditional costumes and dancing, others were dressed normally. There was even a squad of men dressed in baby pink banging on humongous drums.

It was all very jolly, but as I’d just gone for a swim and a hot tub and was feeling pretty weak, we continued our way slowly up the hill to home. (Never has that short hill looked so long — this really is not a good city in which to have limited mobility!)

Traditionally though, May Day marked the beginning of summer, which began as a pagan celebration back in the day and was then appropriated under Christianity into the more secular celebration we see today. Of course neither is a big deal in the States, but I know it’s a bank holiday in Britain, and is clearly an occasion to celebrate here. Under the guise of International Worker’s Day, May 1 was also very important in Soviet Russia, and continues to be so in Cuba.

I’m not sure which of those many forms of May Day I celebrated yesterday, but I’m sure spending all day reading on the couch (The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins) and feeling poorly counted as solidarity of one kind or another.

On a similar note… after yesterday’s post, a gentle reader pointed me to a blog post on solitude by the author Mary Morris. Morris says, “I wanted my solitude, but was not enjoying my loneliness… Solitude implies a choice. But loneliness is imposed. It’s a kind of stealth emotion.” That’s exactly what I was trying to say in my own much clumsier way yesterday.

I have always been a solitary person. There is no doubt about that. At home in Santa Cruz though, that is a choice: I have people to call, friends to see, family to visit. Here, my solitary state soon became synonymous with loneliness, because there was no choice. Even when I want to be around people, the possibilities are few and far between. So this week, when I returned to solitude after six weeks of companionship, the loneliness quickly overpowered my relief at being solitary once more.

I’m very relieved to be able to make this distinction. I still do relish my solitude, and would feel like I was losing an old friend if suddenly I were to stop valuing it as much. But loneliness — well, that is one acquaintance I can certainly do without.

Either way, the entire debate will be rendered moot in about three weeks, when we go to visit family in Sweden. After that, it’s pretty much nonstop travel, company, and moving until we get home in August, by which point solitude will once again seem like a sweet desert oasis shimmering on the horizon.

The grass is always greener, I suppose.

Since I was still feeling a little fragile yesterday, I decided that spending the day at home was the best way to go. After a week where two significant personal anniversaries bookended four wonderful days spent well outside my comfort zone, the grocery store incident on Tuesday drained what little was left in my poor introverted batteries.

I was confirmed in that belief when even my pilates teacher’s frequent yet mild corrections during class yesterday left me feeling slightly bruised. Right, I said. Time to shut out the world for a while.

This was not a difficult decision to make, as my brief walk between the gym and the post office (where I succeeded in getting not one but two stamps! ha!) proved that the day was not going to improve much past cold and overcast, and would soon deteriorate into very cold and rainy.

So I gratefully came home and locked the door behind me, breathing a huge sigh of relief as I relished in the silence and solitude of our flat. I spent the rest of the day ensconced in the warm cocoon of our office, working, catching up on my reading, and just generally recharging. Sure enough, today I am feeling much better for it — although since it’s still cold and rainy out, I might just take another mental health day while I’m about it.

On the bright side, I know that am only able to feel this bruised because I am finally feeling comfortable enough to let my boundaries down a little. So yes, when setbacks happen, they sting a lot more. But when things are going well, as during our trip to the Algarve, I am also able to enjoy them more fully. And if experiencing the latter means curling up in a ball for a few days here and there, well, so be it.

People never believe me when I tell them that I’m an introvert. “But that’s not possible! You’re so friendly/outgoing/sociable!”, they say. The worst response I ever got was a coworker’s response to my statement that I didn’t like crowds. She just laughed it off disbelievingly and said, “What, did something traumatic happen to you or something?” Um… yeah. Not gonna touch that one. As usual, people’s nerve never ceases to amaze me.

Anyway, trust me on this one — I am, deeply and truly, down to my very core, an introvert. Just ask my husband. Or, as we like to call it in our Smug Married terminology, I am a cat. At any given time, cats are perfectly content to curl up by themselves in a sunny spot on the couch and sleep the day away, perhaps waking up long enough to give themselves a bath if they’re really feeling ambitious. If you happen to sit down on said couch and provide them a conveniently warm lap to boot, well, they may just deign to come over and visit. Or they may not. Either way, cats much prefer to keep their own counsel, occasionally letting very special people into the inner sanctum to shower them with affection. If that affection is not forthcoming, they will not perish for its lack, but rather turn up their noses and return to their bath.

Dogs, on the other hand, will whine all day until their owners return to rescue them from the terrible trials of solitude. They then bound to their side, overcome with love and limitless affection, never to be parted again. Depriving them of attention is like starving them of food — you just can’t do it.

In this sense, I am most definitely a cat. I would much rather curl up on a couch with a book than talk to just about anyone. I would gladly write a thousand emails than return one phone call. Silence, in a word, is golden, and people, while enjoyable, become a burden after too long.

My husband, on the other hand, is without a doubt a dog. Even after a long day of nonstop teaching and talking, he still bounds in the door, ready for yet more interaction with his prickly, cat-like wife. If left alone for more than thirty seconds, he immediately reaches for his cell phone or switches on the radio. People are his drug, his lifeline, his energy source. You have no idea how much I envy him.

Nonetheless, we have learned to speak each other’s language just fine: he knows when to leave me alone, and I know when to shower him with hugs and kisses. For the most part, it works out pretty well. But every so often, the need to fulfill my deepest cat nature becomes so overwhelming that I literally can’t stand to be around anyone. At that point, any and all human company drains and exhausts me, and I get more and more irritable until I can just curl up and be totally by myself for a sustained period of time.

And this, my friends, makes me by definition an introvert. People often confuse the term with being shy, which I am definitely not. I can be quite gregarious and friendly when I need to be, which is why acquaintances or people I work with don’t get why I would ever call myself an introvert. What they don’t understand, and what it’s taken me almost two years to teach my extroverted husband, is that for me, all social interaction comes with a price. I can be the life of the party, yes, but afterwards (and usually beforehand, too, if I’m lucky) I will need to go home and sit in a corner, quietly, not talking to anyone, just being.

Today, blissfully and gloriously, I was able to do just that. We are up in Lake Tahoe for a few days, taking a break at the end of a long and difficult quarter. My husband decided to go snowboarding with an old college friend who’s also in town, leaving me with the cabin all to myself for a wonderful six hours of solitude. Even as the car pulled away, I could feel myself expanding into the silence, filling the space around me in a way that simply isn’t possible when there’s other people around.

To be honest, I didn’t even do anything that special with my day. I read a lot, did yoga, ate, thought about going outside for quick trek via snowshoe, but then looked at the temperature (hovering right around freezing all day) and decided to have another cup of tea instead. But the most beautiful part of it was that I didn’t have to do or say anything, or be anyone other than myself, for a full six hours. That time was my own, no one else’s, and in that alone it was priceless.

When my husband got home, I uncurled myself and emerged blinking into the world of people once more, adjusting slowly to his enthusiastic barking and tail-wagging after a day spent on the slopes with friends. I even managed to enjoy dinner out with my husband’s friend and his young son, enjoying the social interaction far more than I would have been able to without today’s extended retreat into myself.

For a long time, I denied this part of my nature, and was much unhappier for it. Now, I know that all I can do with my introversion is to take solitude as I happen upon it, making space in my every day life to recuperate from the strain of being around others. And then, every so often, I am lucky enough to get a day like today — a cat day. When I do, I relish in it to the fullest extent possible, and let it sustain me until the next time.

(For a fabulously written piece on introversion — that has apparently since sparked a nascent Introverts’ Rights movement — see Jonathan Rauch’s 2003 essay from The Atlantic.)

“Treat history as a springboard, not as an anchor.”

- General John G. Medaris

When I Wrote It

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