The Sixth Stage
I’m working on a book. Heimat covered the first five years of living here in Germany and finding contentment, a feeling of Wohl, in a country I never expected to marry, have children, and buy a house within. But lately my preoccupation, and thus my writing, has shifted from what home means, something the latter half of my twenties was dominated by, to the shift in identity I have sensed since becoming a mother outside of my own culture and language.
This book will, in a way, pick up where Heimat left off. I have been busy bashing away at the chapter outline and the introduction chapter, which is taking longer than I would like, but such is life with children and a job. I thought I had written the latter, so began chapter one. As I wrote chapter one, I realised that I was actually writing a far superior introduction, and thus gave the original introduction the chop. Half of it became a stand alone essay I might publish here one day, and the other half is below. A little introduction to this book, and to me for those of you who are new around here.
Most people, when they move to Germany, go big; Berlin, Munich, or at least one of the million-plus cities like Cologne or Hamburg. I didn’t. I started with a mid-sized city in the country’s west, moved to a tiny town in the south-east, got terribly homesick and terribly uncertain that Germany was supposed to be where my future lay, and then found my feet in a city by the sea in the far-north. This unlikely tour of the country meant I stumbled across its regional divides rather early on. In fact, mere months after I had settled in my first German apartment, on one of Münster’s most beautiful tree-lined boulevards, my flatmate warned me about my new romantic interest. He was from the north, you see, and the northerners are … different. Frankly, if he was anything to go by, they were also rather good looking and the idea he brought with him a sense of fresh, salty air when all around me were cobblestones and church steeples, felt like I had found a kindred spirit. Different was good, particularly at a time in my life where I felt, although I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, so very different to the surroundings I was attempting to make some sort of a life in. Münster, for all its beauty, for all its perfection and precision, proved to be a place I simply could not make myself fit into and consequently, as I tried to find a way to make things work, before following die Liebe to Bavaria, where the fit was even more uncomfortable, the latter half of my twenties came to be hugely preoccupied with the idea of home; what it is and how we find it.
German-American psychologist Eric Erikson theorised that people advance through eight stages of psycho-social development during their lives, with each stage representing a crisis that must be resolved to allow for progression. Life is therefore, I suppose, something like a video game and each time we level up, we are given more weaponry with which to tackle the next level. The sixth stage, Intimacy vs Isolation, is a stage in which we learn to develop intimate relationships with other people, and ideally emerge from with an understanding of the basic virtue of love. We are then prepared for the seventh stage which, from what I can gather, is rather existentialist: what have I contributed to the world, and how am I going to be remembered?
But I am getting ahead of myself. I am in the sixth stage and shall be for another seven years. This stage of my psycho-social development sees me working through the ideas of intimacy and isolation, learning, essentially, about myself within the context of a loving relationship. I entered this stage at nineteen, as we all do, when I was coincidentally at university studying psychology and indeed Erikson himself, although his theories fell by the wayside (the ‘wayside’ being litres of Malibu and Coke, and hours spent drinking coffee and being philosophical) until I found myself reading about them nearly a decade and a half later. And it struck me, as I read about them, for a class I was teaching on identity, how very perfect the two words are for life as I currently live it; intimacy and isolation. I had fun avoiding intimacy before allowing it to track me down, and once it did, I uprooted my life and replanted it on the other side of the globe, which was when isolation introduced itself to me, a bedfellow of one of the defining chapters of my twenties and early thirties; immigration.
Isolated from friends and family, yet enormously in love and willing to do whatever it took, something else happened, something that pushed me into my thirties with a quiet, seismic shock; I became a mother. Someone brand new was on the way, a relationship that would rearrange all others and, itself, be defined by intimacy and isolation.
Intimacy. Isolation. Immigration. I find myself in a stage of life in which I seemingly cannot avoid the letter I. It is somewhat unavoidable that I must add another; identity. The relationships that began during the sixth stage of my life have created what I now know myself as; an immigrant and a mother. And if there is one thing I am learning, it is these two things are not entirely unalike, indeed very often they are the same. Both demand you learn, constantly; a new language, new borders. Both demand you assimilate with a plethora of preconceived notions you learn on the trot. Both rewrite who you are.
Childhood becomes important once more when you have children of your own. I revisit mine often, as my children tear through time. I grew up in a semi-rural area in Australia’s New South Wales, with my sister and brother and a menagerie of animals. We had the quintessential Australian childhood of the nineties; long, hot summers during which Mum lost track of us as we tramped through the bush, setting up makeshift cubbies, avoiding snakes, and trying to catch wild rabbits as pets (we were successful approximately once, and the thing ran around the stable yard in circles until we let it go, disappointed by its somewhat unexpected wildness). After school, I went straight to university, and after finishing my Bachelor’s degree, spent six months on a round-the-world trip with two girlfriends. The trip took us, among many others, to two places to which I would return, and to which I would always belong; Greece and Germany. The former I returned to the following year, during the summer holidays of the first year of my Master’s degree (unsure of what I wanted to do or be in life, but certain writing was to comprise the heart of whatever I did, I had been accepted into an MA in Creative Writing) and then again after graduating. And again after that. I pulled beers and told drunk backpackers to stop throwing chairs in the pool and go home, for long, hot, mercurial summers. The latter I moved to and never left – not, in all honesty, entirely deliberately.
With a BA, an MA, a Working Holiday Visa and a view to teach English, I left Australia in July 2010 with plans to be back after a couple of years. I would spend a year in Germany with friends I already had, then move on to an Asian country, and then most likely return to Sydney – a city I never entirely felt comfortable in – and figure out The Rest of My Life. I spent another summer in Greece, on the island of Santorini, working and working on my tan, before arriving in Münster on a cold, rainy September’s day, with inappropriate footwear and absolutely no jacket. Four months later, as the coldest winter I had ever experienced dawned, I met that different man with the kindest eyes and the rest, as they say, is history.
From Münster, a city of students and bicycles and 13th century buildings, we moved to Weiden, Bavaria, and that is where this new book will begin. Not because Weiden, the place where I ran head first into tremendous isolation, taught me everything about what a home needed to be, but because Weiden was where our journey into parenthood – into the greatest intimacy – began.
What do you think?