Independence is a virtue

This is a story told in parallel. It’s the story of my last couple of days, as well as the couple of decades leading up to this.
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When I was about 10 years old, my mum picked me up from my friend’s house. We’d only barely come out from their long driveway, when something went ‘plink’ and the motorbike broke down.

We were a half hour’s ride from home, and a 5-minute walk back to my friend’s place. We were on a dirt road, and there was no public transport in the area.

What do to?

We walked. Not to my friend’s place tho. We walked in the other direction, towards home. I don’t remember how far we got, or how we ended up getting home. I just remember that — altho my friend’s parents would surely have been ready to help — walking forward was better than walking back.

* * *

I thought I was going to be in Germany today.

A couple of days ago, I had said my goodbyes in Malmö at the southern tip of Sweden, and had my course set for the long bridge that spans the Øresund, connecting Sweden and Denmark.

But things took a turn for the unexpected — or rather, I missed my expected turn. I was leaning forward as I drove, one ear cocked towards the front of the van, focusing on a strange new noise. I trundled right past the turn-off for the bridge.

In the time it took to swing around, the noise had become a whole lot worse.

I had been so excited to leave Sweden behind, to make the next step forward. I’d just had my winter tyres changed over to summer tyres the day before. That had felt like a weight lifted — not just from the van as I left the old wheels in a ‘tyre hotel’, but also from my soul. But that sound told me in no uncertain terms that I wasn’t getting out so easily.

They must have buggered something up with the tyres, I reasoned. It was only a 15 minute drive to the shop. It was a sting to have to turn back, but I wouldn’t be delayed too long.

By the time I made it to the tyre shop, my body was rigid with tension. The sound was awful, and ranging wildly from clunks to screeches to whirrs. I handed over the keys with sulky, accusing looks. What have you done to my Magic Box?

But they couldn’t find anything wrong while it was parked. We needed a test drive.

We’d barely gotten out onto the road, when the noises returned. My co-driver looked at me. “That’s what you’ve been hearing?” he asked. “That’s not the wheels... that’s coming from the engine.”

We screeched and clunked to a local mechanic. He also took it for a drive. They asked me if I was heading back to Finland. No, not backwards, I told them. I’m going to the UK. No you’re not, they said. Not in this van, anyway.

* * *

Some 15 years after that motorbike breakdown with my mum, I moved to Finland.

It’s hard to be independent when you can’t read or understand or communicate, when you don’t know the rules (or the loopholes). I couldn’t find work. I didn’t have friends. I didn’t know where or how to find the things that I needed. I became financially, emotionally, socially and practically dependent on my partner.

As my personal power diminished, so did my capacity for making decisions and choices.

It was while living in Finland that I missed a flight for the first time. We were coming home from Heathrow to Helsinki. We were late — only by a little, but enough — and we weren’t allowed to board.

I was overcome. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t stand. I couldn’t think.

I sat slumped on the floor by the check-in counter, gasping, while my partner calmly discussed our options with the airline staff.

The way forward seemed too much for me to consider or process. The only thing I knew was that we couldn’t go backwards. There was no way we were going to retrace our steps to the friend we’d just said goodbye to, no way we were going to ask to stay another unexpected night.

I felt paralysed: unable to move forwards, unable to move backwards. I let my partner handle it all.

* * *

It was raining as I sat in my van outside the mechanic shop in Malmö. I counted a limited set of options, and none of them seemed desirable:

  • keep driving, and see how far I got. Listen to that horrific noise on the way.

  • go back to Finland, find a friend’s couch to sleep on. Internalise my feelings of failure.

  • go back to Australia, to my mum’s couch. Set fire to the van before I go.

  • go back to the friends I’d just said goodbye to, and to their couch. Spend a week in time, and a bit more than I originally paid for the van in euros, for repairs.

I don’t like going backwards. I really don’t like going backwards.

I didn’t consider at all going back to Finland. I just briefly entertained the thought of giving up and going to Australia. I cringed deeply at the prospect of skulking back to my friends in Malmö.

I very seriously considered the only option that involved forward motion.

* * *

A few more years after missing that flight in Heathrow, I had rediscovered and regenerated much of my own strength and independence. I was handling the bigger things again by myself — for better or worse. And yet I still leaned on my partner for the small things. Even as we separated, I noticed myself asking his help on insignificant matters.

It was a peculiar mix of old habits: reliance on someone for easy things, and stubborn independence when it came to the hard things.

It was a long-distance friend who pointed out that difficult things didn’t have to be. She told me it was okay to ask for help, that I didn’t have to do the hard things alone. She must have said it in just the right way, at just the right time. I truly heard her, and so I practised, a conscious shift to break old habits.

A month or so and some 1000 kilometres later, I was visiting that friend. I stayed for a few days with her and her partner, true and genuine friends both. We shared food and belly laughs, swapped stories and small treasures, and moved house over the weekend.

Then I said my goodbyes, and I drove off, my course set for Denmark.

I missed my turn, and soon found myself sitting in a broken van in the rain.

I considered my options.

I’d been practising lately, to ask for and receive help.

I’m not sure that it made it any easier to call my friends and tell them what had happened, and to ask to return so soon after having left. But it wasn’t as painful as I thought it would have been.

It actually felt kind of... okay.

It felt like an acknowledgement of two significant truths: I am loved, and I am safe. And for these things, I am so grateful.

And, it turns out the initial diagnosis of the van was excessive — it took a day to figure the problem out, another day to get the replacement part shipped from northern Sweden, and a third to fit it, but Magic Box is now back with me, and at much, much less cost.

The extra time here has allowed me to catch up with an old friend, and on a mounting pile of emails. I’ve become more familiar with Malmö, and I feel even closer to my friends here. I’ll get to Germany a few days later than planned, but really, it has all sort of worked out well...

Fierce, stubborn independence was instilled in me early, along with the idea that it’s better to push forward into the unknown, than to turn back and ask for help. I learned young that independence was a virtue, but I learned this week that I don’t always need to be so virtuous.

The farewell photo, taken about 15 minutes before I missed my turn to Denmark.

The farewell photo, taken about 15 minutes before I missed my turn to Denmark.

Jessie Jane2 Comments