And Why It Was The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me
I don’t tell this story all that often but it’s probably the biggest story in my life (so far).
Back in the fall of 2007 I was a student in Montreal, living with the woman I thought I would marry. I was a teacher and artistic director for a great dance studio, a barista at a local cafe. I was applying to a graduate program in Educational Technology. I did yoga and pilates regularly, and trained in capoeira when I wasn’t teaching or social dancing at night. All things seemed to be on their merry conventional way in my life.
Cups of tea were plentiful and there were no jarring questions to shake my existence.
Fast forward to a Sunday night on a return trip from Albany, NY with my girlfriend. We arrived at the border station at 10pm. The guard checked our passports and said we needed to go inside. I’d been through the border so many times it didn’t bother me. Inside we waited. They called my name. Took my documentation. Asked a few standard questions, told me to sit down.
They called me back up and asked prying questions about my studies. Something was wrong. After the long weekend, driving, being generally exhausted, and now confused I started to panic. I was called into a back room. Small, gray, windowless. A desk and two chairs. A Quebecois border guard came in with a stack of documents and a yellow legal pad. She did not look friendly.
Apparently they believed I had purposefully lied about my visa and study situation. My old visa for prior undergraduate work had expired but no one had removed it. Assuming I was studying on an expired visa and with no alternate paperwork with me to back my story up, I was out of luck. She accused me of lying. Badgered me. Said I was taking advantage of their system. It was probably after midnight by now but there were no clocks. I was horrified.
She read a passage from the immigration law book, quoting the law I had supposedly broken. Then two more. The punishment, exclusion from Canada for a year. Oh it could be much worse, I could be deported for life she said. As if just a year was a kindness. She handed me the card for the Consulate Generale in NYC and said that I could appeal it there but that I had no chance. Obviously she was steadfast in her belief that her decision was law.
I was crushed, crying and really in no right space to think. Really at a border you have no power. But it got better. I couldn’t just turn around. They had to drive me back to the U.S. border. I was locked in the back of an SUV and driven to the U.S. where they brought me inside for more paperwork. Even the U.S. borderguards gave me crap. Like I was in any state to receive more insult.
It was 1am.
I called my parents when I was back in the car with my girlfriend. They say in books that people choke out words and they are right. I had my life torn out from under me. In 3 hours.
Life changes that fast.
Eight months later, thousands of dollars in travel expenses, lawyer fees, and immigration fees and the expulsion order was overturned as a misunderstanding.
That’s right, a misunderstanding.
In the meantime I had racked up credit card debt, moved to NYC, gotten a real job where I worked 40 to 60 hour weeks, and watched let my relationship fall apart. 3 hours and a misunderstanding had destroyed my idyllic Montreal life.
Life as we know it hangs on the edge.
Now you ask, how can that experience be one of the best things to happen to me?
Tragedy, despair, displacement, loss. All of these things have something to teach us about ourselves, how we walk in the world and treat the things we care about.
Those 8 months weren’t the end of how low I would sink. I turned to drinking, women, traveling and dancing to fill the voids in my life. I ended up hurting friends, driving myself further into debt, and the tale goes on.
In all the pain and tragedy I ended up causing and feeling, I found the part of me that was strong enough to stand up, smile and make my way in the world. It took me almost a year to sort out the layers of guilt, the feeling of powerlessness, and get my head on straight financially. But for the adversity I withstood in a year, I have gained a strength of character and an understanding of myself that I never would have had if my life had remained idyllic.
So, besides the most obvious thing it taught me (always have a good lawyer versed in immigration laws if you are traveling, studying or working abroad), it taught me more about myself, my potential and my weaknesses, than any other series of events in my life.
Adversity and tragedy holds the potential for our greatest strength to come forward.
When we are stripped bare by loss and pain there are rarely more than 2 roads for us to choose from.
The road of apathy, self-pity, denial, anger.
The road of perseverance, courage and acceptance.
Sometimes only after we follow the first road for a while do we realize that the other road is even there. Often not far out of reach but we can only see the brambles of self-doubt. To realize that we can make it to the other road by steps regardless of how small they are is the biggest challenge and hardest step of all.
Each step towards the other road is the beginning of our own road and soon they are one and the same.
Tragedy shatters the reality we took for granted and we can only bury our head in the sand for so long before we suffocate.
It’s time to come up for air. To breathe in a new life every moment and live to our greatest potential with the courage that tragedy has shown us we possess.
Flickr photo courtesy of Mechanikat.