Two years, two months, two weeks, two days. That’s how long we lived in Italy. As of last Monday, that’s how long we’ve been back from Italy. Ever since passing the two year anniversary of returning home this summer, I’ve been thinking about what I’ve learned since moving back from abroad. How I’ve grown and changed since then. What’s been easier, and what’s been harder. Today I will share a few thoughts with you… Two years, two months, two weeks and two days later.
First, I must talk about the time in Italy a little bit. You see, I went to Italy with a small personal goal: To figure out who I was. The year before my assignment started, there were several rounds of layoffs at my corporate job. That can be scary, but even more scary if it makes you realize how much of your identity you derive from your work. I started to realize that if I were laid off, it would be like the rug being pulled out from under me. Who would I be? How would I define myself? And I knew that was not a good situation to be in. I needed to figure out who I was, beyond external definitions. Who I was beyond being a mom, wife and engineer. I honestly didn’t know.
So I took lots of books with me to Italy and I made time to read and journal. Following my intuition and growing interests, I began to explore art. I started visiting art museums and exhibits, dabbling in painting, and taking my camera with me wherever I went. I wrote about what I was discovering in my journal and on my blog. And, lo and behold, I slowly uncovered an artist underneath all of the layers of self I had put on over time. I discovered within myself someone who could take observations of the world and re-form them into something new and different through words and photographs. And I began to understand who I really was, what mattered to me and what I struggled with, in unexpected ways through these expressions in words and photographs. It was wonderful. I felt powerful, and I knew, just knew, that I had found the key piece of who I was that would continue beyond the unique time and place of living in Italy.
I was right.
And I was wrong.
Because when I moved back here to Oregon, I began to have an identity crisis of a different sort. Who was I as an artist, without living in Italy? Would I still have words to write, photographs to take? I hadn’t realized, until returning home, what I was gathering up during that time in Italy was a different set of external definitions and expectations, wrapped around this new identity as an artist. I had tied myself up in thinking “what” I was photographing or writing about defined me as an artist the same that “what” I did as a career defined me as a person. Damn! Maybe I hadn’t made as much progress as I thought. I had traded one thing for another, and I still had lots of work to do. Personal work, artistic work, to discover who I was, independent of a place.
It was make or break time. Either I would come out the other side, still defining myself as an artist, or I would move on and look for something else. Because as you’ve undoubtedly noticed, Italy and Europe is no longer at my doorstep. I’m not a huge world traveler anymore, hopping to new countries every couple of months. I couldn’t rely on travel to fuel my artistic and personal growth any longer. As much as I love travel, I knew that always wishing to be “somewhere else” wasn’t how I wanted to live my life after moving back to Oregon.
So returning to Oregon really just continued me on the journey I had started in Italy. The last two years haven’t felt as much like trial by fire, with the intensity of change I experienced in Italy, as trial by slow cooker. It’s taken me longer to figure things out, probably because the landscape of life is more familiar, the pace of new experiences is slower.
I’ve come out on the other side of this transition from Italy to Oregon, and yes, I am still an artist. I’m not the same artist I was when I left Italy, and that is a very good thing. I look back at that point in my life and that person I was fondly, but not with longing. “Italy Kat,” as I’ve called that version of myself, didn’t know what I know now. Even though she thought she had it all figured out, she wasn’t as balanced in her life or grounded in reality. She didn’t understand that she would continue to grow and change in ways beyond her wildest predictions, and that growth and change, continual reinvention, is an essential part of being an artist. She didn’t yet understand that you have to learn to be happy with who you are, no matter where you are, what you do, or who you are with. You have to find the grounded, centered confidence of who you are at your core, or external things – the place you live, the job you have, the relationships you are involved in – can define you. And all of those things are transient, they can go away, taking huge chunks of your identity with them. I’ve learned that I don’t want to always be looking to elsewhere for my identity, as an artist or otherwise. That gives up control of who I am, and my happiness, to others or to circumstances.
To be honest, I know I have a long way to go before I really get to the independence of identity that I’m talking about. I may never really get there. But through this journey to Italy and back I’ve at least learned a bit more about myself, discovering myself as an artist and finding out where “place” fits in for me. I’ve learned I can let places, people and circumstances in my life influence and change me, without letting them define me. I can take them in, use them, and always, always come out with something new that is of my own making.
Because I am, at my core, an artist. And that’s what artists do.