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Stretching Boundaries

Simi Valley, CA 1969

Simi Valley, 1969. I’m the short one with the red trousers!

On 18 September of this year, I will be voting in the Independence Referendum which will decide if Scotland should be an independent country from the rest of the UK.

There is much heated discussion about this, as you can imagine. One of the comments that struck me was from a Scot living in London who was afraid that a ‘yes’ vote would make him an alien in what had been his own country.

This got me to thinking about the boundaries in our lives, and how they change as we grow older.

When I was little, growing up in Simi Valley in Southern California, there were many boundaries to my world. The biggest was the the hills that encircled the valley where we lived. Before Simi became so developed, to do clothes shopping we used to have to go ‘over the hill’ to the shopping mall in Topanga, an early example of the now ubiquitous mall. This was a big event.

My smallest boundary was probably the confines of my bedroom. This was the hub of my world, and I knew every inch of it intimately, every toy and piece of furniture, the plants that grew outside the window, the way the shadows from the trees would fling themselves across the walls when a car went past. I used to make up star constellations in the gold sparkles that decorated the acoustically-treated ceiling.

I had a deep love of my home, my patch, and was possessive and protective of it. There was a boy in our neighbourhood who I hated because he used to ride his bike around our circular driveway. He was trespassing and it made me furious. How dare he come on our property!

I remember waging a futile battle against a small dog that used to steal my cat’s food off the porch. We used to feed the cat in an unused margarine tub, and this dog would show up regularly and steal it. Not just the food – the whole tub! For weeks we couldn’t figure out what was happening to it, so one day I had a stakeout.

I was amazed to see this little terrier mix appear from nowhere, trot up onto the porch, grab the bowl and run off with it. I chased it on my bike and was even more amazed when it ran for nearly two whole blocks before disappearing under a gate, margarine tub still firmly clamped in its jaws. Its owners must have been very puzzled at their collection of margarine tubs in their back yard. I decided if it was that determined it was entitled to keep them.

Our backyard was enormous. My family was fortunate to live in a tract that had generous plots for each house and our yard seemed to stretch out forever. Near the house was familiar – the old tall English walnut tree we used to harvest nuts from each year, the honeysuckle tree where we used to suck the nectar from the blooms, the old, twisted black walnut tree… and that was where things started to change.

Just over halfway from the house to the back wall, that tree was a little strange. Beyond it were some nice friendly small fruit trees. Then there was the garden my dad fenced in, which was worked briefly and then left to run riot when everyone lost interest. Beyond that I didn’t like to venture.

Around the side of my dad’s workshop that he built himself, was an old camper shell up on sawhorses. Dad said my friends and I could use this to hang out. We did, but not often. It was too near the woodpile, which had black widow spiders in it. It was out of sight of the house. It was scary.

The neighbourhood boundaries grew as I got older. They were always fairly large, as I had a good walk to school when I was at elementary. I seem to remember this taking about 20 minutes but I could be wrong.

It, too, was scary, as there was a junior high school at the end of our road and we had to walk past these big kids on the way to school. We were frequently picked on and were terrified of them. But in those days parents didn’t drive their kids to school, so we walked in pairs and braved it.

So the boundaries of childhood weren’t very large. When I decided aged 18 to go to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, I knew it would be a huge step. A move clear across the country, 3,000 miles away from every thing I knew. I didn’t mind because I was so excited about being out of high school, and being able to devote myself entirely to music, that it didn’t really worry me about leaving home and family behind.

What I hadn’t counted on was the total difference culturally involved in a move like that. I didn’t understand the accents or place-names there. Coming from somewhere where all the street names were Spanish, I couldn’t get to grips with words like ‘Worcester’ or ‘Faneuil’. The sense of humour was far more cutting and teasing – much more like the humour here in the UK, I now realise. But I spent the first year being constantly bewildered and hurt by people who were only trying to be funny.

I knew I would be going back to Southern California, not far from Simi Valley, when I left Berklee. I wasn’t exactly excited by the prospect, and decided to stretch my boundaries further. I left Boston and spent a week in London, which I instantly fell in love with.

All too soon I was back in California and felt like my boundaries had closed up tight again. I had seen more of the world and wanted to see more.

It took another nine years, but eventually I was able to move north to Washington, living west of Seattle across Puget Sound. It wasn’t the happiest time in my life, but I loved where I lived. It was peaceful and beautiful and full of wildlife. It was here I met my husband Graham.

Graham, for anyone new to this blog, is English and was living and working in West London when I met him. He came on holiday to Washington, visiting a mutual friend, who introduced us. Only two months after we’d met and only spent two weeks together, he invited me to come stay with him for Christmas and New Year. My family and friends thought I was crazy but I could feel my boundaries stretching again.

I went and got to go a step further – he took me to Paris. It was the first time I’d been to the Continent and it was fabulous.

We got engaged, then married, and I left behind the country of my birth and moved to my adopted country of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Another culture shock and I’m afraid I wasn’t always gracious about the adjustment. Why do they have to do things this way? That’s ridiculous, why don’t they just do it the way we do it in the States? But over time I’ve adjusted and grown to love my adopted country passionately.

A few years ago I cemented this boundary permanently – I took British citizenship. A new frame of reference. I’m still an American, still a Southern Californian, but now I have that new viewpoint you only get if you move away from your home country. And while it’s not always a pleasant sight looking back, there are many times I’m pleased by what I see.

The strangest thing now is coming back to the States to visit family and feeling like it’s a slightly alien place to me. I’m different, I sound different, the country has changed drastically in the eleven years I’ve been away. Simi Valley is unrecognisable to me – there are streets where there were hills people used to hang-glide from, I got lost trying to find my favourite beach because there were too many new roads. There seem to be shopping malls everywhere.

The most recent expansion in the boundaries of my world has actually been a form of contraction. Four years ago Graham and I left the exciting but exhausting bustle of West London for this little island we live on here in Orkney. It’s the biggest of the Orkney Island archipelago, called Mainland, but still small compared to the bigger island of Britain.

It’s been another new place, another new culture. Learning about what it means to be Scottish, learning about the Orkney culture which has more historical ties to Norway than it does to Scotland. So an expansion, but a contraction in that our physical boundary is now the coastline that holds us here. A welcome distancing, but a challenge when we need to leave. The tides and wind can keep us here against our will and make the journey unpleasant.

But it also feels safe. It reminds me of my childhood home. That bedroom I knew intimately, the plants and trees that were familiar friends, the way I could explore the front and backyards and got to know them so well. And it felt secure behind the closed front door – it was our house, my family’s domain. Sometimes the Pentland Firth that separates us from mainland Scotland feels like that front door.

This hasn’t really said anything about the Scottish referendum. But it is forcing people in and from Scotland to define themselves, to consider new boundaries. The question seems to be do you define yourself as something or against something?

Do your boundaries define you? For that man living in London, is he less Scottish because he’s stretched his boundaries? He’s still technically living in his own country, at least for now. But will he be looked at as less Scottish by the folks back home? And as an interloper, a foreigner, if he stays in England?

As a non-native, it is interesting and fascinating to be a part of the discussion. I have a right to vote in this referendum because I’m a British citizen and I live in Scotland. But I’m also American, and my cultural history is different to the majority of the people who will be voting. Will my decision to stretch my boundaries give me a helpful slant on the process? Or will it muddy the waters, make me less likely to understand the deep-running feelings of others?

We still have seven months to go. Watch this space.

Kathie Touin