photo by Di Mackey
I’ve so impressed with all the interviews. I’ve read all of them. Some of you have a harder time than others. It must be difficult to ask the right questions of someone you only met online that day! I was very lucky to get V-Grrrl as my person to interview. I’ve been reading her blog for quite a while. I knew I could ask her anything. My only regret was that I couldn’t ask her the questions face-to-face. Someday!
V-Grrrl’s profile: An American expatriate in Belgium (although not for long!), I’m caught between two kids, two continents, two cultures, and my opening and closing acts. Here I am stuck in the middle with you.
My interview with V-Grrrl of V-Grrrl in the Middle:
Neil: I’ve been reading your blog for a long time, and I recently went back to read you first posts. Your blog started out more an exploration of being an expat — an American in Belgium. More recently, your writing has become personal, even emotional, and less focused on your surroundings. Was this a creative choice form or has something happened in your life during this past year to change something in you?
V-Grrrl: It wasn’t a creative choice as much as it was an evolution. When I first became an expat, the changes in my life were all encompassing, and I was focused on dissecting and analyzing everything that was different. After a while, Belgium became home and life felt more ordinary. Being an expat became a smaller part of my identity and less a topic of my writing.
Another reason my writing has become more personal is that over time, I’ve become more comfortable in sharing my emotions and my life on my blog. It makes for more powerful writing. I try to keep my posts authentic, even if it means revealing things I’m not proud of. That takes courage and was stressful at first, but then as the gap between my “public persona” and my private self narrowed, I felt better. It’s been liberating to share the good, the bad, and the ugly with my readers, to share my humanity with them.
Finally, I think midlife is an introspective time. So much is going on in my life right now as my marriage matures, my kids grow up, and I take stock of my choices and the relationships I have. For me, it’s a time of reckoning, and the emotion of that comes through in my writing.
Neil: You are moving as I write this. Are you moving back to America for good? Why are you moving? What will you miss most about Belgium? The pissing boy fountain? What will you miss the least? Are you nervous about the move? Or happy about the change?
V-Grrrl: Our plan was always to stay in Belgium for three years, though we did consider staying longer. There are practical considerations driving our decision to return now, things related to my husband’s career and also the children’s education. I love Europe but want my children to launch into the world from America. As a “trailing spouse,” I haven’t had a work visa or permit or an opportunity to get one here. I’m not ready to retire yet–another reason to head home to America.
Will we stay in America for good? I hope not. My husband and I talk about coming back to Europe as soon as we launch the kids into the world, and I definitely plan to come back and visit friends and family.
What will I miss most about Belgium? My friends, E’s Belgian family, the beautiful architecure, the way it’s green year round, the enormous number of parks, and the Belgian sky, which is moody and dramatic. Believe it or not, despite the prevalence of gray skies and horizontal rain, I like the climate here. I have fantasies about moving to the Pacific Northwest now that I’ve lived in Belgium.
What will I miss least? The howling wind and the crazy drivers.
As for being nervous about the move, yes I am. When you become an expat, you dwell in a space between your native country and your new country. Expats call that “the third culture.” I know I’ll never feel fully at home in America again, even though it’s “home.” The surface of my life looks unchanged but I feel profoundly different. How do I settle this “new person” into my old life? Where does she fit?
Neil: How has living in Europe changed you?
V-Grrrl: When you leave your country behind, you truly start over. Life is stripped of its social infrastructure, family ties, community and cultural touchpoints, EVERYTHING. I shed all my “labels” and everyone’s expectations. It was terrifying and liberating at the same time. Disconcerting and grounding. For the first time ever, I devoted significant portions of my time to my personal writing and creative pursuits, including art. Living and traveling in Europe, surrounded by people from different cultures and backgrounds, has been amazing and wonderful and so enriching. Living in a country where I don’t speak the language, where “new” experiences are a daily occurrence, has given me confidence in my ability to handle myself.
Neil: I didn’t know much about your artistic talent until all of a sudden, you started posting your artwork more frequently. Were you always creating artwork and just being shy about showing it, or is this scrapbooking, etc. a new endeavor? Where would you like to take it?
V-Grrrl: I never took art in high school, but in my last year of university, I took studio art, art history, photography, and a beginning graphic design class. I absolutely loved all four classes and regretted that I was graduating and couldn’t pursue more art studies. My dilemma since then has been that I’ve felt like an artist without a medium. I have a good eye for art and a creative sensibility but lack traditional art skills like painting and sketching. I’ve always gone to galleries and museums and bought art, and I enrolled my children in private art lessons, but I never did anything artistic or crafty until I moved to Belgium. My friend Sherry introduced me to rubber stamping and cardmaking, crafts I never thought I’d like but came to love. I had a growing interest in mixed media art, in collage. Last August, one of my readers sent me a book on art journaling, and that inspired me to claim myself as a mixed media artist and head in a new direction. I began an art journal and started posting my pages. As for where I want to head with it–well I want to advance my skills and use of media. I want to continue to art journal and maybe grow into making pieces for display.
Neil: Can I get personal for a second. I’ve always pictured you as a classy woman, interested in raising her children with strong morals. So, I was surprised at first that, of all my readers, you seemed to always enjoy my sex gags. After a while I began to notice that your writing is very sensual itself, not overtly sexual, but filled with sights and sounds. Are you aware of these two parts of your personality — the upscale expat Christian mother AND the lusty sensualist? Do these two distinct personalities ever get you in trouble, like checking out the Reverend’s butt?
V-Grrrl: Ah Neil, you know me so well! I am VERY aware of these two parts of my personality; the dichotomy keeps life interesting. My closest friends appreciate “V the Christian Mum” and “V the Lusty Sensualist” in equal measure. I can’t say the same for everyone else.
Does it create problems for me? ALL the time. I have to watch how I present myself because not everyone is accepting of my “warped” sensibilities. My husband doesn’t appreciate sexual humor, innuendo, or comments AT ALL, and it’s a rough spot between us. Must.Bite.My.Tongue.
Once someone accusingly said, “Doesn’t the fact that you’re a wife and mother mean anything to you?” The question was meant as a reproach for the “inappropriate” nature of some of my comments. All I could think was, “Hmmm, being a wife involves a lot of sex and I became a mother as a result of that. So where are the great chasms separating marriage, motherhood, and sex?”
I have a great sense of humor; I laugh often and laugh loudly. Sex is a very funny business–I can’t stop myself from being a bit “naughty” (as Di likes to say).
For the record though: I never check out clergy butts, OK? My clergy read this blog, and I just want to make it clear, I’m NOT that kind of grrrl. I am, however, the kind of grrrl who hears the Christmas carol Silent Night and thinks, “This will be the LAST silent night of Mary’s life. She’s got a boy child now. She and Jesus will both be crying in the morning. Wah! Wah! Wah!”
Neil: Is there something that you brought in Europe that is very precious to you that you are shipping very carefully home?
V-Grrrl: I bought fifteen pieces of framed art and some pottery from Italy, Holland, and Poland. My favorite? A small piece of Modigliani pottery I bought in Rome. I wanted to hand carry it in my suitcase because I didn’t want to ship it and be separated from it for eight weeks. I practically kissed it goodbye.
Neil: Did you stop working full time when you had your kids? I know you worked as a journalist. What are your plans now as the kids get older? Are you secretly writing a steamy novel?
V-Grrrl: I have worked as a news reporter, but right before I had children, I was working as an editor for a small publishing firm. After my son was born, I began working part-time from home as a public relations writer and strategist. It was an ideal situation. I worked for an agency on a project-by-project basis for various corporate clients. I wrote Web copy, marketing materials, advertising sections, white papers, and articles. I did a lot of ghostwriting for executives.
I have a mass communications degree, and I think I’m well suited for PR work. I plan to return to it in the U.S. I’m also considering pursuing some freelance writing gigs. Not a fiction grrrl. No steamy novels in me, but I do like to write poetry and essays.
Neil: You met your husband at 17? Did you get married early?
V-Grrrl: I had one serious boyfriend before I met my husband the summer between my junior and senior years of high school. He was a college senior, five years older than me–attentive, romantic, warm, sexy, considerate. He just kept getting better the longer we dated. I was engaged at 18, and I married E when I was barely 20, during spring break of my second year of college.
I have regrets about some of the choices I made in my 20s, but I don’t regret marrying him. We’ve made a good life together for almost 26 years now. Sure, there are times when we question whether we’re meant to stay together; we have different temperaments and sensibilities but we’ve persevered.
Neil: Through your blog, I met Di (at least virtually). She takes such wonderful photos of you. How do you know her?
V-Grrrl: Di is from New Zealand and lives in Belgium. I began blogging about the same time she did and we read each other casually for about a year. In the fall of 2006, she sent me an e-mail and told me she was going to launch a photography business and was trying to build a portfolio–would my family mind being photographed? I’d seen her work on her blog and jumped at the opportunity to “model” for her.
I met Di for the first time during that photography session, and I offered to use my PR experience to create a marketing plan and help her with her Web site. Our friendship grew out of that collaboration, and we’re very close now. There’s an intensity to our bond that I cherish. Our affection for each other shows in her photographs of me–I’m always smiling and have a certain radiance. She brings out the best in me while accepting the wobbly bits. : )
Neil: Where does most of your family live — like aunts, uncles, etc.? Have you missed having a close extended family while out of the country?
V-Grrrl: Most of my extended family is based in NY but my siblings are scattered down the East Coast from Maine to Georgia. I rarely see my extended family, and even when I lived in the States, I often went years without seeing some of my siblings. My parents died 16 years ago, so we don’t have a central place to gather or parents holding us together anymore. Most of my nieces and nephews are grown now, and I have more than a dozen great nieces and nephews. Even though we all get along fine, my family is not that close, so living overseas hasn’t been that big an issue for us.
Neil: Who are your kids like the most? You? Your husband? No one?
V-Grrrl: My children bear little physical resemblance to me. I have brown eyes and curly dark hair and my kids are very fair, blue-eyed blondes with straight hair like their dad. Thankfully, neither of them got my nose! My son’s hands are exactly my hands, and he has some of my temperament–a bit of melancholy with a sly sense of humor. He has his father’s mechanical intuition and shares my love of science. My daughter got the best of both me and my husband in both her aptitudes and character. She’s got the prime DNA in the family.
Neil: I notice you like poetry. Is there one poet that really speaks to you?
V-Grrrl: It changes based on where I am in life and in spirit. I used to be devoted to Emily Dickinson, but lately Mark Strand and Billy Collins have been speaking to me.
Neil: Next week is your birthday. You recently wrote a beautiful post about the passing time. Your son even shaved for the first time. I know that time seems to be speeding up for me as I get older. Do you feel the same?
V-Grrrl: My sister was diagnosed with cancer when I was 16 and she died young. I’ve always been very aware of the transient quality of my life. I live with a clock ticking in the background, and it gives me a certain intensity and point of view. I have to be sure that the things I spend time on matter to me and that the people I love know that I love them. I have low tolerance for BS. I like to savor my experiences. I’m all about process and less about product. I can’t stand to rush around or stuff my schedule full of activities. I don’t confuse being busy with living a meaningful life. I refuse to sacrifice my time to the American idea of productivity.
Neil: Are you taking cholesterol medicine yet? For me, getting old is when you have to think before you eat a slice of pizza.
V-Grrrl: I was a vegetarian, distance runner, and vitamin popper in my 20s, and health conscious through my 30s. I always exercised and did the right thing. Around the time I turned 40, I developed an idiopathic cardiac problem. God has such a sense of humor. Last time it was checked, my cholesterol was only 155, my blood pressure was that of a 14-year-old, and yet my life includes regular visits to a cardiologist and daily medication. Sometimes my heart fatigues me, and I have to plop on the sofa. It’s humbling.
Neil: Are you a good cook? What does everyone ooh and aah over when you make it?
V-Grrrl: I wouldn’t call myself a “good cook” because I reserve that label for people who put far more time and effort into cooking than I do. When I bake, I bake from scratch, and I like to make soups. Di thinks everything I cook for her is fabulous. My husband always thanks for me for preparing meals. My kids? They’re not so impressed and complain a lot. I hate preparing food for my family. I guess that makes me a bad mother.
Neil: You say that you sometimes get prone to depression. I notice a lot of bloggers have this problem. Do you think writers/artists are more prone to depression than more “normal” folk? What snaps you out of your moods?
V-Grrrl: I’ve dealt with episodes of depression since I was a teenager. As I aged, the episodes got longer, the remission shorter, and the recovery from them was less than complete. I was losing ground. I was encouraged by a friend to get medical treatment about five years ago and it changed my life. Really, it saved my life.
While I do think artists/writers are more sensitive to life than others, I don’t think they’re necessarily more prone to depression; they just express their angst more openly.
What snaps me out of it? Well at this stage in my life, I need medication keep my depression under control. Music helps me shift moods, and getting outdoors and taking long walks lift my spirits. The love of family and friends keeps me plugging along through the dark moments, and anyone who makes me laugh out loud is part of my depression cure.
Neil: and lastly… I just had to ask this — If I asked for a photo of you in a bathing suit, would you send it to me?
V-Grrrl: If Di took the photo, I just might, not because I look great in a bathing suit but because I accept the body I have now better than the one that used to rock a bikini. Watch the mail, Neil. You never know what it will bring. : )