Tag Archives: long distance relationship

Reunions

In the three and a half years we’ve known each other, Mike and I have spent at least 3 weeks apart nine times now. When Mike was still living in PNG there was the three months apart right after we started dating and three and a half more after we got engaged. There were four month-long overseas consultancies Mike did during our first year of marriage. We spent about half of the first six months of last year apart before our move to Laos. And then there’s been this last ten weeks.

Mike will arrive into the Gold Coast tomorrow morning at about 7:30am, so when I haven’t been wondering whether the baby will beat him here I’ve been thinking a lot about reunions lately.

The last couple of days before a reunion I used to get oddly nervous. I wanted to be back together again but I often caught myself fretting about his return, too. What if he’d changed? What if I had? What if we struggled to find things to talk about? What if it was weird and we ended up staring at each other over the dinner table (or in bed) wondering, “who are you, and what are you doing here again?”

I’m not feeling nervous about Mike getting here this time – possibly because when I haven’t been busy forgetting all about appointments and planned skype calls any fretting I’ve done in the last ten days has run more along the lines of: “who am I, and how did I end up pregnant and living with my parents again?” So given that Mike is landing here in ten hours I’d say I’m home free this time, because even when I did get nervous in advance of a reunion I was usually beyond the anxious stage by the time I reached the airport.

I always aimed to get to the airport not too long after Mike’s plane was scheduled to land so that I’d be there before he exited customs. I wrote the following in my journal the day after one of these pickups during our first year of marriage:

I don’t mind these airport waits as long as they don’t go on too long. You can’t maintain that focused state of excited expectation for too long before it rises, crests, and transforms into something else for a while – boredom, thinking about things I need to do, anxiety. But as long as they don’t drag on beyond an hour there’s a wonderful concentration to these snippets of waiting to come together again. A profound gratitude, and amazement, that we have journeyed halfway around the world and yet again found our way safely back to each other. A wonder at the mystery of relationships, at how my life has been transformed during the last two years in ways I had never imagined.

I like standing there in the airport anticipating the moment that Mike will come through that door. I like watching other people doing their own waiting and wondering what has bought them to that point. I like feeling a part of the mystery of a thousand separate lives all meeting at that single moment like a huge tangled ball of living yarn.

Waiting in the airport is that turning point from the busyness of getting ready to have him home and the solitude of the last month. The familiar happiness of reunion begins before he even appears, although the instant of greeting is always a slightly different experience. Yesterday, the kiss I’d been anticipating – that radiant singular moment of greeting – was fleeting and not as electric I’d expected. The hug was better. All warm, and stubbly, and smelling him familiar, his hands firm against my back, tilting my face up towards him as you lift it to sunshine on a spring day.

Our last LAX reunion before moving to Laos - June 2010

What have been your experiences with reunions – what do they make you think and feel? Do you have any reunion traditions?

A skype date at 37 weeks pregnant

“How are you?” Mike asked me last night via skype.

“I’m grumpy,” I said.

“Why are you grumpy?” Mike said.

“I don’t know. Why are you in Laos?” I said.

Mike stops to puzzle this over for a few seconds, then decides not to engage on that front.

“Well, tell me about today,” he said.

“I talked to Jenn and Robin by skype. I lay down for a while. I read. I went to the chiropractor. I made an apple and rhubarb crumble. We had pizza for dinner. We watched TV,” I said, outlining a day most people might consider nearly perfect in its restfulness.

The problem, as I went on to explain to Mike, was that it was the third nearly perfectly restful day I’d had in a row and I was starting to get restless. It’s the first time in a year I haven’t had either consulting work or the memoir to occupy me during the day. I’m grateful for this extra mental space, but it’s making the days long. I’m at that stage where I can’t spend more than a couple of hours out and about without returning exhausted. My feet, after weeks of doing so well in the cold weather here, are swollen. Whoever the doctor was who claimed Braxton Hicks contractions are painless must have been an unmarried man. My back hurts, and I’ve even been banned from walking 2km in one go and doing all but the most gentle of yoga poses.

“The baby could come any moment,” I finished. “Or it could be five more weeks. And I hate these in-between stages.”

Mike listened to this litany of woes and, thankfully, didn’t remind me that many women manage to soldier through pregnancy while also caring for other children, or working full time, or alone, or while fleeing the latest horrible conflict or deadly famine in Africa. I know all of that, and on days like yesterday having someone else dish out some version of the “lots of other people have it worse than you do” perspective check usually doesn’t help in the moment. It just makes me even grumpier, because I end up feeling like a pathetic, complaining weakling on top of everything else.

Instead, Mike asked me how I’d been dealing with the grumps.

“Oh, really productively,” I said. “For example, I skulked about the kitchen while Mum was making dinner and complained that she’d bought the wrong type of pizza bases, that we didn’t have enough pizza sauce or the right type of trays for cooking pizza, that she’d set the temperature wrong on the oven, and that I wanted to fix my half just the way I liked it. I think she wanted to banish me to the living room. Or maybe back to Laos.”

“What’d she do?” Mike asked, possibly looking for tips on how to handle this scenario during those times I know that he wants to ban me from offering commentary in the kitchen while he’s cooking.

“Not much,” I said. “She pretty much patiently ignored me the same way she ignores Dad when he’s being unreasonably grumpy.”

At this point we managed to segue away from my grumpiness and talk for an hour about family dynamics, this article on the Harvard Grant study and happiness, the true meaning of church, and whether, when, and how we should venture opinions when people seem set on doing things that appear way less than wise because they “made a promise to God” or feel that “God told them to.”

You would think that an hour of talking with my distant beloved would have completely shifted my mood. Alas, no. This is how the conversation ended at 10pm.

“I’m going to let you go so that you can take your yawning self to bed,” Mike said.

“I don’t want to go and go to bed,” I whined, somehow instantly transformed back into a petulant five year-old. “I want a cuddle.”

“Well, even if I were there I’m not sure you’d be getting one from me. I might be telling you to go sort yourself out. In bed,” Mike said.

“If you were here I’d bite you,” I said.

“I know.” Mike smiled the smile of someone who was safely out of biting range. “I love you.”

P.S. If you followed that link on the current food crises in Somalia and Kenya and are wondering how to help, here are some more links to World Vision and Oxfam.

P.P.S. Since my parents were mentioned, I ran this past one of them before publishing it. Mum laughed and said maybe Dad should be vetting it instead of her. She suggested that I include the fact that Dad is not often unreasonably grumpy, but I said that such a caveat would spoil the punchiness of the line. Then she suggested I maybe could include the fact that Dad has been massaging my swollen feet for me many nights. I pointed out that, while true, that fact is a narrative tangent irrelevant to this tale. Sorry Dad, maybe next time.

Inflection points

Yesterday morning, right after we got up, I did my weekly weigh in. Apart from one ultrasound in Thailand, taking pregnancy vitamins and stepping on the scale every Saturday morning has pretty much been the sum total of my prenatal care. I suspect that my return to Australia tomorrow is likely to mark the inflection point on this issue (though I must say I haven’t minded avoiding some of the tests that sound like they’re a routine part and parcel of the first 28 weeks if you live within, oh, 500km of good medical facilities).

After I stepped off the scale and Mike stepped on, it quickly became apparent that this weekend would mark more than one inflection point. Yup, I am now officially half a pound heavier than someone six inches taller than me.

That was only the start of yesterday’s fun and games, for we spent much of the day packing, with Zulu following us mournfully from room to room. We couldn’t tell whether he recognizes now that suitcases invariably mean departure or whether he was just soaking up the prevailing mood.

After I laid out all my clothes on the bed I asked Mike to look them over with me. We’re going to be tight on weight both going out and, particularly, coming back, and I wanted to make sure I was traveling as light as possible (which, in practice, I will admit translated to: I wanted Mike to tell me exactly what I wanted to hear with regards to the decisions I had made).

He did not.

And when I got surly after he told me that he thought I should cull some of what I’d selected he had the gall to laugh and then come over for a kiss.

“I know you don’t like me very much right now,” he said, “That’s fine. I don’t always like it when you think differently than I do, either.”

“Yeah,” I said. “But that only happens when you’re wrong. I used to get to make all my own packing decisions without any disagreements with anyone.”

“Mmmm,” Mike, now busy putting my shoes in plastic bags, chose not to engage on this topic. He also chose not to point out that I used to have to do all my packing by myself too, instead of sitting on the bed and watching him fit stuff into my suitcase.

Inflection points. There have been a couple of them lately.

Three weeks ago the belly started to swell faster than a desert cactus after once-a-decade rains. Two weeks ago I suddenly got ravenous (mostly for junk food – can anyone say nutella and ice cream?). Last weekend we transitioned from the second to the third trimester. Tomorrow Mike and I go from together to apart, from hugs to skype, as we separate for ten weeks. I will go from summer to winter as I cross the equator.

At Mum and Dad’s place even my dinnertime conversation will change. In Australia we may not spend an entire meal trying to work out itineraries that might get Mike to Australia in time for the birth if I go into labour more than two weeks early. Then again, that might be because Mike and I have researched this equation every which way and figured out that unless I have a hellaciously long labour, there are none.

There are some silver linings to this whole situations – I am quite looking forward to winter weather, and spending the most time in Australia that I have in a decade. I’m also very glad I have a beautiful and happy home well staffed by my parents to go hang out in for months on end (fully a dozen years after my poor Mum and Dad must have thought they were safely past the risk of having one of their daughters turn up on their doorstep alone and pregnant).

Empty dinner table overlooking the Khan

But there’s grey this weekend, too – a great big cloud of it. I don’t like this whole separated for the third trimester thing. I would quite like Mike to be with me for pre-natal classes and for us to be able to discuss things like birth plans across the dinner table instead of the equator. I would quite like to be with him when he’s procuring things like cribs and change tables and figuring out where to put them. I really don’t like the fact that Mike is sitting across the table compiling the results of last night’s exploration of every conceivable flight route out of here into a document called, “Flight info-Mike to Aus in emergency.doc”

Sigh.

Many of my friends tell me that all of these inflection points will pale in comparison to the one that’s about to hit us when the baby arrives. Of course, some of my friends have also suggested that it will make a far better story if I go into labour the night before Mike flies to Australia and he skids, sweaty and disheveled, into the delivery room just in time to catch the sucker as it pops out.

Nope… as much as I love stories, I think I’ll be far happier if Mike arrives well before that particular inflection point.

I’ll keep you posted. Catch you from Australia.

Rewriting, third drafts, feedback, and elevator pitches (in summary)

I decided to give myself the day off consulting work today and tackle the last chapter of the memoir rewrite instead.

73,276 words later I have a full third (or, uh, tenth or thereabouts) draft! I still don’t have a good title, but never mind. The marketing team came up with my hands came away red for my first novel and I loved it. Titles don’t seem to be my forte, and I’m hoping someone out there will be similarly inspired for this book.

That assumes, of course, that this book ever goes to print.

I’ve been reading a lot of writing blogs lately and one thing is for sure, everything is changing fast in the publishing industry with the rise of e-books and the rapid growth of self-publishing. I think I’d still like to go the traditional publishing route if I can get a contract that feels right, but that is by no means a given. It is perhaps even less likely now than it would have been even five years ago.

But that challenge is in the future. For now, I need to run this version past Mike, and then family and a few of the friends who populate the pages, before sending it to my agent. There’s a long way to go yet in this process of figuring out whether this book will ever find a home.

In my efforts to get this book as agent-ready as I could during the last four months I tried something new, hiring a professional to act as an external editor (thanks Amy Lyles Wilson!). It was a useful investment. Amy provided several key pieces of feedback, including that my opening wasn’t as strong as it could be (those all-important first few paragraphs needed to get to some action quicker). I should, she said, consider looking for a cleaner way into the story.

Most importantly, I think, she also recommended that I reconsider my use of letters between Mike and I. Given that some of this memoir tracks the development of Mike’s and my long distance relationship, I was faced with the challenge of how to write about this when we had no communication except via email before we met for the first time in Australia. In the second draft of this book I tackled this problem by crafting entire chapters composed of nothing but our emails.

These letters, Amy essentially told me, contained too many details that were mainly meaningful to Mike and I. They were too long, and it became too hard to track the thread of our story as well as the other themes through these chapters. Some of the issues we discussed in the letters were conversations worth having, but I needed to figure out how to have them in another way.

This feedback wasn’t as surprising or demoralizing as it might have been had I not previously given the manuscript to about ten good friends to read before it went to Amy. Opinion among the friends had been divided on the letters. About 40% of people loved them and 60% told me that they got bogged down or felt too much like voyeurs while reading them. Even before Amy mentioned the letters as an issue I was resigned to the fact that I’d need to re-craft those middle chapters.

It’s not fun pulling something apart  and redrafting yet again, but this is the seesaw process of editing. In the first draft I think I had too little of Mike’s voice in the story. In the second draft I inserted too much. Hopefully this third draft, like the little bear’s porridge, will be just right.

Another useful piece of advice Amy (and several others – thanks Joslyne in particular) gave me was to craft an elevator pitch. An elevator pitch is a summary of your story that could be delivered during the length of an elevator ride. The main benefit of this exercise, I do believe, is not to hone your pitch so that should you corner an unsuspecting editor in an elevator you can badger them. No, I found it valuable mostly because it forced me to think through how to distill the essence of the book in a way that conveys its themes and also piques interest.

So here’s what I’ve come up with so far as an elevator pitch. This, like everything else, is subject to future editing but it’s a good place to start. And, for me, starting is more than half the battle.

This is the story of an old-fashioned courtship made possible by modern technology – the tale of two people separated by the Pacific Ocean who build a long distance relationship entirely via email. Along the way the narrator – a global nomad who has spent her life as the transient resident of eight different countries – must confront troubling questions about where home really is and what it means to commit to a person, a place, or a career.

Writers, what are some of the lessons you’ve learned while rewriting your own work? Are you working on something now? If you have an elevator pitch, share it in the comments!

When Helping is Hard (Part 1): That sort of decision

This story starts in May. In May, Mike was in Laos in the middle of his first seven weeks at his new job with World Vision. I was in LA wrapping up my own job. Mike was trying to find his feet in a new place and in a new life. I was trying to disengage from familiar people and a familiar life.

We were in very different places – not just physically – and as we spent my evenings and Mike’s early mornings talking via skype, I frequently found myself feeling torn. I did want to hear the honest truth about how things were in Laos and try to support Mike through the first shockwaves of this change. But as I was tearing myself loose from LA and preparing to step into the whirlwind I also, often, found myself longing to just hear the reassuring message: “We totally made the right decision. Everything’s great. You’re going to love it here.”

Some days I got that. Many days I didn’t.

The night that Mike first told me about Sommai, I didn’t.

The day before, Mike told me, he’d received an urgent phone call from a staff member, Edena, who was based in a field office four hours outside of Luang Prabang. There was a very sick sponsored child in her district, Edena said. Sommai was seven, and lived in a remote and inaccessible village. There was no cell phone reception or road access in this village – it was another hour north by motorbike, and then a twenty-minute walk into the hills.

Edena didn’t speak very good English. She couldn’t explain what might be wrong with Sommai, but she did manage to convey that he needed urgent medical care or he might die. She wanted Mike’s authorization to send him to the district health center, but here was the big problem with this situation (or, rather, the tenth big problem): the family was very poor. So poor that, even with the organization committing to cover most of the bills that would follow, Edena didn’t think that the family had the money to pay their quarter of the treatment costs.

So Mike was left wondering what to do. The organization has many good reasons for its policies requiring some family contribution for medical care. There are also good reasons why it’s standard practice that the family pays the initial costs that are incurred and then files for reimbursement. Mike couldn’t just ignore these policies, but could he really sanction delaying or denying assistance over what was (to us) a relatively small sum of money?

As soon as possible after Edena’s call, Mike met with child sponsorship staff in the Luang Prabang office. Together they searched for a solution.

No, the staff confirmed – Mike could not circumvent these policies just because he felt like it. Perhaps, the staff suggested, the family could borrow some money from the village development bank (a small community fund set up in many villages to help in emergencies just like this one).

Only, three hours and numerous phone calls later, it turned out that this village didn’t have one.

Then they discussed whether Mike should write to the national director and ask for an exemption from the family contribution co-pay.

Mike was torn on this, and in the end it was the national staff that tipped the scales towards a no, citing two things Mike already knew. The organization supported thousands of children and they couldn’t make exemptions for all, or even most, of them. Perhaps even more importantly, the staff said, if they sought an exemption in this case many other families in the village would also claim extreme poverty. No one would pay their share, and it would ultimately make the job of the field staff much more difficult.

“Sommai’s family will find a way to borrow the money from relatives or friends, or maybe the staff in the field will help out of their wages,” the Luang Prabang staff told Mike. “We should wait.”

To Mike – a month into the job – it seemed like a gut-wrenching gamble to take on the life of a child, but he took their advice and sent the message back to Edena. The organization would help. As per policy they’d reimburse most of the medical expenses, but the family had to come up with the initial co-pay.

“What do you think?” Mike asked me that night in May, over skype, “How do you make these sorts of decisions?”

In California, sitting alone among half-packed boxes in our quiet living room, I shrugged even though he wasn’t there to see it. How did you make that sort of decision?

“I don’t know, Mike,” I said. “I don’t know.”

Sommai lived. Over the next day or two the family did come up with the copay – they borrowed money from their relatives, and others who lived in the village. Sommai was transferred to the district health center. Soon after that, on the urgent recommendation of the district center, he was transferred to Luang Prabang where he spent six days in hospital before he was discharged.

After his return, from back in the village, Edena reported that he was still a very sick little boy, but recovering.

A month later, Mike and I were still chewing over this case. One beautiful evening in June, three nights after Mike arrived back in California, we took a break from the chaotic hard work of boxing up our lives. We sat on the porch with our good friends Matt and Hilary. We sipped sauvignon blanc. We layered triple cream brie and dates on water crackers. We talked about Sommai’s case, and others, all night.

You never stray too far from these conversations when you’re in a job like Mike’s. Physically you can be thousands of miles away, sipping wine and eating imported cheese, but the questions and the dilemmas don’t stay behind – they never stray far.

So Hilary and Matt got an earful. They plunged into the experiential waterfall of Mike’s early days in Laos with full attention and keen interest.

Three nights before we left Los Angeles, we had dinner with Matt and Hilary again. As we were leaving Hilary passed me an envelope. Inside was five hundred dollars in cash.

“Here’s some from us,” she said, “Our part. Maybe it’ll help. Maybe next time there’s a Sommai, or you see a need, maybe it’ll help knowing you have some in reserve.”

We were both awed by this generosity, and grateful, but Mike was also a bit worried.

“Money’s tricky,” he said to me later. “What if we can’t use it soon, or they don’t approve what we do with it? What if…”

“Stop it,” I told him. “Matt and Hilary love us. They gave this to ease burdens. They trust our judgment and know that we’ll be best placed to see ways this can be used. They won’t care if it takes months, or a year. You are not to worry about this, of all things.”

[Next time in Part II of this story, Mike and I visit Sommai in his village]

  1. When Helping is Hard (Part 1): That sort of decision
  2. When Helping is Hard (Part 2): In the village
  3. When Helping is Hard (Part 3): Score one for policy
  4. When Helping is Hard (Part 4): Money, it’s complicated

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Love Long Distance

It’s my birthday tomorrow, and I can tell you something I won’t be doing… talking to my husband.

No, we’re not fighting.

He’s in Papua New Guinea.

Yes, again.

It’s been ten days since we got back from Australia, eight days since our Los Angeles wedding reception, and six days since he left for a about a month to do a consultancy with Oxfam. I’m relearning what it’s like to be alone, which is exactly the lesson every new bride longs to learn two months after her wedding.

To be perfectly honest, there’s something to be said for alone. Reading late at night and a whole bed to yourself, for one. No one pestering you to give them more than 10% of the closet, for another. But, on the whole, alone has been emptier than I’d anticipated this week. Quieter. And I have had to light my own candles, pour my own glass of wine, and turn on the mood music myself after I get home from work.

If I said that to Mike he’d roll his eyes and say, “Awww, it’s so hard, isn’t it? How do you manage to be you?”

But I can’t say that to Mike, because he’s in some remote village right now completely out of cell phone range and keeping company with fleas instead of me.

I was thinking, driving to work this morning, about how often we’ve been in this situation during the last year, and how few places there really are left in the world where you are literally uncontactable. Even in aid work that’s unusual now – most international NGO offices in Darfur have high-speed internet access – and when it comes to the reach of mobile phones the true wilderness of the world is shrinking faster than Antarctica’s ice. With an ever-growing number of access points – email, text, mobile, facebook, twitter – our ability to connect with others almost anywhere, almost anytime, is also expanding. And so are our opportunities to pursue love across the miles.

Starting during my wedding reception, more than a handful of people in the last few months have suggested that I start writing essays about married life now, while others have pre-emptively recommended that I not lay Mike’s life quite as bare as I appear to be willing to lay my own. Well, those concerned with protecting Mike’s privacy can rest easy for a while. For, as my sister said to me yesterday on the phone; “You haven’t really had any normal married life time yet, not a single day.”

“Yes we have,” I argued. “There were a couple of days there in Australia after honeymoon and before Matt and Lou’s wedding.”

“You were both on holiday, and living in Mum and Dad’s house!”

“Well,” I said a bit wistfully, “I wish that were normal. It was really nice.”

“Yeah,” Michelle said, in a tone that made it clear that any hopes she’d held that marriage would magically mature me had just been dashed.

So perhaps it might be wise to give things a couple of months and maybe some more time in the same country before I tackle my marriage in writing. But having Mike away again has highlighted something I can write about that we have a lot more experience dealing with to date – a long distance relationship.

Before we met face to face in Australia for the first time about a year ago, Mike and I spent three months writing letters. It was a modern beginning in some ways – we could transmit those letters instantly with a click of the send button – and it was decidedly anachronistic in others. We agreed early on, in our second exchange, that we wouldn’t consider anything more than friendship until we met in person (if we ever got that far), and we never talked until we met for the first time in Brisbane airport.

The letters we wrote during that time, an entire book of them, laid the foundations for the relationship to come. It was then, with little to lose and the extra protection afforded by distance, that we established the range of our discourse – and there wasn’t much that was off limits. We wrote about our childhoods and our families, our love/hate relationships with the work we are drawn to, mental health and what we’d learned from previous long distance relationships.

We wrote about the little things that made us smile that day, or sigh, or wonder.

It amazes me now, but we were so used to communicating via letters that when we met for two weeks in Australia we didn’t give much thought to whether or how we were actually going to talk once we’d decided to date. We also didn’t figure this out until some time after we had returned to our respective sides of the world.

Two weeks after I returned to LA last year I was sitting on the couch in my new apartment on a Saturday night, writing, when my mobile rang. The number came up No caller ID, which usually means someone overseas, so I picked it up expecting my brother, Matt.

The line wasn’t working that well, and neither was my brain, apparently, because before I relay the conversation I have to pause for some disclaimers. I didn’t know that Mike had my mobile phone number. I wasn’t sure it was technically possible for him to call me from where he was. And I was writing – I was therefore vague. Very vague.

Mike: “Hi. So you like surprises?”

Lisa thinks: Hmmm, guy’s voice. Probably foreign friend. Possibly foreign friend flying into LA tonight who wants a couch to crash on. Crap, I don’t want to drive to LAX to pick someone up tonight!

Lisa: “Uh… sometimes.”

Mike says something about sitting on a rock looking out over the Pacific Ocean.

Lisa thinks: Hmmm, mystery guy friend trying to mess with me by pretending to be Mike. Who would be that mean??? Okay, let’s face it. A lot of my friends would be that mean.

I really had no idea who it was, and for some reason I was firmly convinced it wasn’t Mike. After we’d traded a couple more sentences I finally sighed and asked, “Ah, who is this?”

Mike: “Your secret admirer from PNG.”

Lisa: Hmmmm, he didn’t say Mike. He said secret admirer. That’s something a mean friend might say.

It took me about three awkward minutes to accept that it was Mike and about thirty seconds after that, while I was still trying to pretend that I normally acted like such a weirdo at the start of phone calls, the line went dead. I was left with no way to call him back and no way to even debrief by sending an email because my new apartment didn’t yet have working internet. I went to bed with the phone that night in case he managed to ring again, and stewed all evening about the fact that I hadn’t recognized my own boyfriend’s voice on the phone and must have come across as a suspicious freak.

It was not one of my favorite long-distance moments ever.

In fact, I’ve never liked long distance in the moment. It’s not like I sit around thinking, I’m really glad Mike’s half a world away right now. But although I haven’t liked it, I do think it’s ultimately been good for us.

Having nothing to build a relationship with but words, forces you to cover a lot of ground. Doing this at a distance – unable to exchange text messages and only able to talk every couple of days in chunks of an hour or two when Mike was in Madang and the one high speed internet connection in town was working – bought us some additional benefits. It removed some of the pressure and pitfalls that attend expectations of instantaneous response and 24-hour accessibility. It slowed us down, granted us extra time and space to think, and encouraged us to be deliberate, thoughtful, and thorough in our communication.

Don’t get me wrong – it wasn’t all rosy, and I’m not advocating that all my single friends looking for potential spouses should suddenly start corresponding with strangers living on technologically-challenged

islands in the Pacific.

It took effort and energy to rearrange schedules to talk, or prioritize writing letters when I was exhausted or flat. Intermittent week-long stretches of total silence like the one I’m in the middle of now have sometimes assaulted my sense of surety in the concept of us and prompted unexpected mood swings. Then there was the temptation to feel that my “real life” was on hold until Mike arrived – to live life in such a haze of anticipation that it obscured the complex beauty of the present. Probing pasts and futures, joys and sorrows, across the miles when we might otherwise have been discovering what snacks we each liked at the theatre provided us with a deep, solid, foundation in one way. But it also rendered our quirks as merely adorable abstractions, and robbed us of small daily opportunities to identify differences and head off or resolve conflict.

Mike knew that I was not as neat or organized as him, but I’m sure it’s been a different thing altogether to see me get absorbed in writing something and subsequently ignore dishes on the bench, hair in the drain, and the fact that it’s lunchtime. I knew he was a lark to my nightingale, but it’s been much harder to fully appreciate the togetherness when he wants to experience the sunrise with me in person. We learned a great deal about sharing our inner selves across distance, but little about sharing our space or schedules. Those particular lessons have just begun.

Some will see this unusual progression as too high-risk a game to play, and there’s definitely an inverse reward function associated with long distance relationships – at some point payoffs start to decrease and costs increase. But even now, nine weeks after our wedding and facing a birthday alone, I can say that high risk has so far equaled high reward and that long distance has, on the whole, helped us more than it has hurt.

I am however, looking forward to Mike’s return, even if it means sharing the closet and the covers. Skype dating has lost some of its charm – although I’d take it right now over incommunicado – and apparently, there’s this brand new adventure called normal married life that I have yet to experience.

Bring it on, I say.

Or, I will, when I talk to my husband this weekend.

In The Beginning Were The Words

After I sent out an essay in May about getting engaged I received more than a handful of letters from people on my mailing list complaining that they hadn’t even known I was dating someone, and that they felt they’d missed a few chapters in the story. A couple sounded quite aggrieved.

How did we meet? And was it true that Mike proposed after we’d spent a mere three weeks in the same city, or had I now taken to blending fiction and reality? What’s the story?

So here’s the rest of that story, from the beginning. It’s long, I’m warning you. But don’t expect any sympathy from me. You did ask for it. Or some of you did, anyway.

Early October 2007. I’m living in LA, working for the Headington Institute and preparing to take off for a month on the road in Kenya, Ghana and Washington DC. Mike is living in Papua New Guinea, working as a water and sanitation engineer for World Vision and preparing to take off for two months on the road in Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands. Erin, an old friend of Mike’s, is living in Atlanta and working as an acquiring editor for a magazine.

The story really starts with Erin. As she explained to Mike via email later, “Lisa’s publicist at Moody sent me the usual press stuff for the month including a one-sheet type thing for her book. ‘We’ don’t usually work with fiction, so I normally chuck those unless they sound really interesting. But the title was killer and the cover was quite nice (I judge books by their covers in general), so I read the synopsis and the little author bio blurb.”

It wasn’t my novel that caught Erin’s attention at this point, it was the fact that I worked for the Headington Institute. As Erin saw it, we helped “burned out and tortured aid workers”. She thought of Mike and his last six years on the field and knew she had to figure out how to sign him up for our newsletter.

So she went to my personal website, which was listed on the press release, and looked for a link to the Headington Institute. What she discovered first, however, were my essays. A couple of essays in and Erin suddenly found that she wasn’t as interested in hooking Mike up with the Headington Institute newsletter as she was in hooking him up with me.

Yes, she acknowledged to herself, the fact that I lived in LA was going to prove a minor drawback. But she also knew I was a third culture kid. My upbringing, she reasoned, had prepared me well for the challenging romantic equation she was visualizing. As for Mike – as she told him months later – “I was so overcome with giddiness at striking gold via one glossy sheet of press mess that I just had to brag to the people in the nearest three cubes that I had just found the perfect woman for my friend in PNG.”

So Erin wrote to Mike that day and strongly encouraged him to look at my website.

Mike, apparently, rolled his eyes and wrote back to Erin pointing out that he lived in PNG, with a dial-up internet connection, and wasn’t about to go browsing the website of a stranger living in LA.

Undeterred, Erin downloaded all the essays on my website, put them in a single word document, and emailed it to Mike.

Mike groaned at Erin’s meddling, but opened the document. Fifty pages later he was intrigued. Dial up connection notwithstanding Mike then visited my website, and as the photo on my homepage popped up he realized that he’d seen my face before – on the Facebook profile of Alison Preston, a friend he’d met in Melbourne when he was doing his masters there five years previously.

Mike decided to drop me a line.

Mid October 2007. I received a note from someone named Mike asking whether I would add him to my essay list, which I did. As he’d mentioned Alison’s name I also friend-requested him on Facebook. After he accepted the request I was more than a little surprised to see we had several mutual friends.

In addition to Ali, Mike knew the Scoullars – a family my own family had gotten to know very well when we all lived in Zimbabwe during my teenage years. Mike also knew another friend of mine, Ryan Schmidt. I learned later that Mike met Ryan in Afghanistan and how I got to know Ryan… Well, that tangent could be a tale unto itself. For now, suffice to say that back in 2004 I read some of Ryan’s essays about his experiences as an aid worker in Afghanistan and Mozambique. Raw and powerful, they were so compelling that I tracked him down via email and pestered him until he gave in an agreed to be my friend.

So, back to Mike. Five days after his first, casual, email, the email dropped into my inbox.

The email where Mike laid it all out on the table and said he’d like to get to know me better – that he really liked my essays, my smile, and my Australian passport (though he was also quick to point out he didn’t need said passport as he had already an American one that functioned just fine). The email where he confessed trepidation as to whether a relationship between LA and PNG would even be worth trying given the potential ordeals involved. The email where he acknowledged the massive information imbalance between us and sent me some of his own writing, told me to give it a think and decide what I wanted to do, and thoughtfully reassured me that regardless of what I said he wouldn’t turn into a Lisa stalker.

The email made me blink. And gulp. His writing made it clear that he’d lived and worked in Australia, Tajikistan, Uganda, and Sri Lanka in the last seven years. He struck me as someone who was either seriously interesting, or seriously crazy. Or perhaps both.

Now I was intrigued. I was also, like Mike, more than a little wary. My own previous long distance relationships had taught me a fair bit about those potential ordeals that Mike was referring to – and that had been without the added complications of an 18 hour time difference, jobs we loved anchoring us on different sides of the world, spotty internet access, and starting from the ground up with these constraints already in place. If ever I’d heard of an against-the-odds long distance scenario, this was it.

It didn’t make much sense to even consider this, and I knew that, but he was cute. Along with the essay he’d sent a link to thirty photo’s he’d compiled to celebrate his thirtieth birthday the previous year. He was only in one of those photos – he was kneeling, surrounded by children in Rwanda. Who has the power to stay untouched by that? And his writing, chatty and confident, was very compelling…

This issue, in and of itself, was one that had me particularly worried. Mike had been frank with me. Despite a sudden shyness, I figured it was the least I could do in return and I tackled this head-on in my reply.

“I know it’s an edited version of me that goes in those essays. All the boring parts, all those days and moments when I’m just flat, or exhausted, or grumpy, or uninspiring, or selfish… I know I’m not as interesting, witty, or attractive as those essays make me appear when read in a vacuum (not to mention the press photos for the book).”

My forays into long-distance relationships, I told him later in that letter, had taught me the very valuable lesson that, “The tangible, living, breathing someone will inevitably turn out to be very different from the idealized someone who springs to life in my head when I read their writing.”

But doing my best to convince Mike that I really wasn’t that interesting or attractive didn’t address the issue of what I wanted to do.

What did I want to do?

After some thought I put it this way.

“Let’s email. As friends. Or as people who think they might want to become friends. With no expectations of anything more until we at least cross paths in person, if we ever get there.”

And email we did.

During the next three months the two of us covered six countries, a dozen cities, and managed to exchange more than ninety thousand words – your standard novel.

In late November, about six weeks into emailing, Mike wrote to me from the Solomon Islands. He waited until the very end of a three page letter to drop a question on me – one, he said, that he trusted I’d answer truthfully and straightforwardly.

“So what do you think of me trying to come down to Oz sometime between Jan 10 and Feb 6 while you’re there? I’d like to try. If you think that would be okay.”

I was truthful and straightforward. I told him that I thought it was a good idea and would be lots of fun.

I knew when I answered that this would mean taking Mike home; there just wasn’t going to be any other sensible way to do it. Luckily, I also knew that when I informed my parents that I had just invited someone I had never met or talked to to come make himself completely at home with us for two weeks during our family holidays, I could count on my parents not to freak out. And indeed they didn’t.

The same cannot be said of the handful of friends in my life who were tracking this story as it unfolded. Several of them delicately suggested I may be crazy.

“What are you going to do if it’s a disaster?” One of them asked.

“Well,” I said. “All going well we’re planning on going to Melbourne to see mutual friends after spending ten days at home in Ballina. I’ve already bought those tickets and I made sure the dates were flexible. Worst case scenario, he gets off the plane, we have an awkward couple of days, I hand him a plane ticket to Melbourne and say “nice try, thanks for coming”. Mike has plenty of friends in Melbourne, he’d be fine. Look, we win either way. It’s either going to be a great holiday, or a great essay.”
I didn’t feel near as flippant as I sounded, of course. But we’d made the decision, what good was it going to do to freak out now?

That mantra carried me right up through to January 20th, the day before I was due to pick Mike up at Brisbane airport. Then I started to get a little nervous. By the time I actually made it to the airport on Monday afternoon I was about as stressed as I ever get.

I stood there in the arrivals lounge of Brisbane airport for an hour, scanning every Caucasian male who looked somewhere in the range 20 to 50. What if I didn’t recognize him? I’d seen a couple of photos on Facebook, but I’m terrible with faces. I didn’t even know how tall he was!
By the time he finally walked out I’d almost hugged three complete strangers and was having to remind myself to breathe.

I did recognize him. Or, more accurately, I recognized his smile. I saw that first, almost in isolation.

There were no Disney fireworks, or choirs of angels singing the Halleluiah chorus as we exchanged our first glances, and our first words. I don’t think either of us thought in that first moment, “this is it.” In fact, pretty much the only thing I clearly remember thinking during those first ten minutes was…

“Phew.”

Because it was easy. Despite the objectively bizarre situation, as we got in the car and began the drive from Brisbane to Ballina, it felt natural. And that feeling stuck around for the next two weeks as we slowly but surely, surrounded by my family and friends, figured out the answer to the question Mike asked me on his second morning in Ballina.

“What are we going to do, Lis?”

By the time we parted ways in Melbourne airport in early February we were utterly exhausted, emotionally overloaded, and happily determined to give this a serious try.

So there you are… That’s the start of the story. There’s more, of course, but I’ll save the trials, tribulations, and treasures of long distance dating for another essay.

In the meantime, Mike’s back in some village on an island in Vanuatu this week. No internet. No phone.

And I have a letter to write.