Moving Home

Big change usually hits me like water-based stain on hard pine. (Can you tell I’m in the midst of a major home renovation?) Half of it doesn’t sink in until hours later. In my case, months. So it still hasn’t fully sunk in that we have this whole new life thirty minutes from our old one, on five spreading acres instead of a postage stamp-sized suburban lawn. It comes to me in small waves, when I look out at our towering spruces, or when I reflect that the last three months seem more like 18. Time goes faster as I get older, but in this small window of time, it has stretched so fully it’s unrecognizable.

This move, I know, will become a “before and after” moment for me, for us. Before the move…after the move. It is the first occasion my second-grade son has had to test his own personal fortitude, his first big life challenge as he adjusts to a new school and new friends.

They say kids are resilient, especially little ones. And they are. But I don’t think for a minute this move hasn’t been hard on my four (now five) year old daughter. When given full control over what color to paint her bedroom, she chose her old room color. When we visited friends on our old block, she was the one, not my older son, who stood on the sidewalk in front of our old house and just looked at it for a full minute. The nest that encompassed her and kept her warm for the first four years of her life was suddenly gone, replaced by a dusty mess half torn apart. It was hard for her to understand that new people now lived there, slept in her room.

For me, this move has been many things—worry and sadness watching my children struggle mightily through the hard moments; determination that this will work—that the outdated house with overgrowth ensnarling it will be transformed into a home that my husband can love. This wasn’t his idea; he moved for me in an act of unselfish generosity, plain and simple.

This move is also the achievement of a dream. As a grader schooler, I searched the real estate ads for farms in Wisconsin and begged my parents to buy one. I wanted land. I wanted to see trees and fields out my window instead of other houses. I wanted to be like Anne of Green Gables.

We never moved, and I grew up. I learned to love the big city of Chicago. I grew to understand that you live where the jobs are, that having a lot of land requires other sacrifices—connection, amenities, convenience. My dream of having land seemed to be replaced by common sense, and also a love of historical houses on small lots near old town centers. That was all good, too.

Then my husband changed jobs. He now worked north, in Wisconsin. What started as “we might have to move to shorten your commute so let’s start looking in Wisconsin” turned into “look what money can buy when you move farther out from Chicago.” And eventually, the dream I thought had died with childhood was reignited and back stronger than ever. It hadn’t died; it was just undernourished. (Childhood dreams are funny that way. I think those dreams are the truest.)

We house hunted over the next couple of years, but didn’t find anything we both loved—taxes were too high, or it was too rural, or the house was falling apart or the schools weren’t great or….. By last fall, we’d actually decided to stop actively looking and stay put, to my partial dismay.

Then two things happened, within weeks of each other. I had a double mastectomy and hysterectomy, and my childhood friend called to tell me she just drove past an amazing property that had me written all over it.

Towering, centuries-old oaks, a barn, two ponds, a creek.

Major surgery, fear, appreciation, time.

When my husband and I first walked the property, something deep within, something sprouting since long ago, felt at home immediately.

Six months later, we watched as the last of our things were packed into the moving truck and the four of us took a selfie on our front steps. We left the home where the children were born and where all the memories we had as a family had taken place.

But we still have those memories tucked snugly in our minds, where they’ve always been. And now we have resilience and change and new frontiers. We have a fawn milking from her mama on our lawn, a coyote napping under the oaks, bullfrogs singing in our ponds, and orange leaves sprinkling down in the sunshine. We have soccer games and creek crossings and a tree swing that flies.

When I’m feeling overwhelmed by dusty drywall and buckthorn and wild, choking vines and light fixtures and wood stain, I take a step back and let this move sink in a bit more. I feel at home.

I’m looking now, and all I see is goodness.

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39

It’s maddening, really. I’ve made it to the last year of my 30s and I know, in the way I usually don’t know until much later with the benefit of time and distance, that this last year was a tipping point, a harbinger of things to come. Momentous, even. I’m bursting to full of things I want to write about.

What’s maddening is that all I can think to write are clichés—things even MY PARENTS have already said. All the ways I can now relate better to them, in fact. All the signs I am in a new category of old. (The “oldies” station now plays ‘80s music. What?) All the ways I want to live stronger, be adventurous, be truer to myself than I have been. I want to surround myself with the things I’ve always loved—writing, music, nature. I’m even pressuring my husband to move 25 minutes away to a 5-acre property with an old barn.

I want change—I want to hang on to its shoulders and give it a head-butt, grab it before it grabs me. To just move, so I don’t look back and see stagnancy. But I am also savoring my little ones because I have a feeling this, right now, is as good as it gets. And I mean that in the best way possible.

Basically, I’m going through a mid-life crisis and my writer self is rolling her eyes at me. Really? she says. This is so….expected. And unexceptional. 

But still, I think:

Man, it’s going fast.

I can’t believe I used to babysit you!

You’re 40?! I once saw you pee on my bathroom floor in a swimsuit! Aren’t we still those same little girls?

What in the world can I write worth reading that hasn’t been written a thousand times before? This past year, yes, was an absolute mind fuck—from finally accomplishing my “someday” dream of publishing a novel (I did it! I did it!), and then watching it whizz by on its way to the past, where it lodged itself comfortably; to the news that my body carries on a family tradition of not having a certain cancer-fighting gene which, really, would have been nice to have (how lazy can one gene be to not even show up?); to the scary surgery monster of metallic dreams and hollow drips, of pain and awakening realizations that this little, old body can only take so much. And at the same time, how goddamn much it can take.

So this year was a culmination of sorts and a push to a future I have always disliked, one I now reach for and hold on to with tired but strong fingers. Something has shifted in me. I have moved from being a consummate fan of the past with its soft, glowing edges, to a lover of the present and future. It is simply too depressing to focus on what I miss—my babies’ fat wrists and dimpled knuckles, my 1981 Strawberry Shortcake shirt. I am here, now, and will not always be. That is this year’s greatest gift to me: the deep understanding that I am fleeting.

It’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years. ~Abraham Lincoln

Bring it, future. ~Jessica Vealitzek

39th birthday

Breaking Up with Friends

Have you ever broken up with a friend? I have, though it was never dramatic.  I went through a phase (namely, my entire childhood) when I didn’t ever want anyone to know I was sad or that they’d made me so. Unsurprisingly then, friendships that ended died slow deaths due to lack of oxygen. There are things I wish I’d done, words I wish I’d said.

My-Other-Ex-final-3-266x400Enter My Other Ex: Women’s True Stories of Losing and Leaving Friendsa volume of essays from the editors of The HerStories Project, now on my To Be Read list. In the anthology, 35 women tell of their own friendship breakups. (Women have a wonderful way of banding together, don’t they?)

One contributor is writer Hallie Sawyer. She’s got a big heart and writes fearlessly. I look forward to reading her essay. For now, she shares some answers to a few of my questions:

1. What made you decide to submit an essay for this book?

I had learned about submissions for the first book, The HerStories Project, but I didn’t have an overwhelming story at the time. I was bummed to miss out on that opportunity but told [editor] Jessica Smock to let me know if there was ever another book in the works. I was partially joking but sure enough, I heard from Jessica a few months later! When I learned about the theme of this new book, I knew I had the perfect story to share.

2. Without getting too detailed for those reading the book, how did it happen to you? Did you do the breaking up or were you broken up with?

It happened rather abruptly when she moved to a new city but when I examined it more closely, our friendship deteriorated over the course of a year. I think we were both to blame but in the essay, I could only explain my side of the story and tried to assume more of the blame because of my über crappy friendship skills at the time.

3. Did you change names for the story? Does this person know you wrote about her? 

I emailed her the essay once I had submitted it but I didn’t hear back from her for quite some time. I began to worry that she hated it but when I let her know about the upcoming publication, she opened up about how she felt about it. She loved the piece but didn’t love reading about herself and she requested I change her name. As writers, we put ourselves out there all the time but that’s not how most people operate and I totally get that.

4. Do you feel vulnerable having it out there?

Not really. I actually felt more vulnerable with my friend than anything else. I worried that I hadn’t remembered it right or that I hadn’t honored the friendship like I wanted.

5. Have you been wanting to write about this? Did it help to write about it or do you still feel like you need closure?

Yes and no. Yes, because the pain of that experience has been there for a long time and too much a part of me to ignore. I’ve always dealt with my emotions through writing but this was an area of my life that I had shoved away for some time. I was ashamed, simple as that. It does feel good to have it out there but I didn’t want closure on the topic as much as I wanted to honor our friendship, scars and all.

6. Many people often let friendships passively die; it’s somewhat of a taboo topic—to proactively end a friendship. What’s your take?

I’m not sure there is a right way to end a friendship. For me, if the connection no longer feels genuine, I usually pull back. No one has ever confronted me with, “Why don’t you call me anymore?” but really, it would be a fair question. The passive approach seems like the less painful one but ironically, when I think about it, it hurts more.

7. How is losing a friend like losing a boyfriend? How is it different?

I think it’s just like losing a boyfriend if you are the one rejected. You have all these unanswered questions and left wondering what you’ve done wrong or what the other person doesn’t like about you.

But boyfriends can come and go. Friends are for life. When you go through a friendship breakup, it can be such a deep hurt that you feel like part of you is missing.

8. What’s your advice for someone going through a friendship breakup?

Whatever the reason for the breakup, learn something from it. Let the experience change you for the better, not bitter. No matter whose fault it is, the important thing is that you find a way to forgive them…and yourself. Also, you are not alone in your feelings. This book is a testament to that.

9. Has your daughter suffered through a friendship breakup?

There was some typical seventh grade drama and she saw an ugly side of friendship. I was so proud of her because she did differently than I did at her age. She confronted one of the girls and it instantly deflated the situation. This girl had been a teammate for a number of years and my daughter let her know if she continued to act a certain way, their friendship was over. The girl denied everything and tried to point the finger at others and it changed things instantly. My daughter decided she didn’t have time for the drama and their friendship dissolved into more of an acquaintance.

10. What did you learn after the breakup —do you see friendships differently now? Do you look for certain signs or red lights when choosing friends?

It’s crazy to realize that our breakup was almost 20 years ago! I think the most important thing I’ve learned about friendships is that life is short. I’ve learned to spend my precious time with those who lift me up and bring out the best in me. Hopefully, I do the same for them.

Counting Change

There’s definitely been something about this year.

I don’t know if midlife crises find us, or if we find them through several culminating, transforming experiences.

Either way, I think I’m in one. Though CRISIS is the wrong word. Much too harsh. Maybe it’s a Mid-life Growth Spurt. Maybe I’ve finally become an adult and this is what it feels like. I thought it happened when I had my first child, but maybe that was just the dig that set it all up—the planting that’s been watered and sunned over the last six years.

This year–I’ll use the school year in this sense–started with my daughter transitioning to a Big Girl Bed and leaving her crib behind. The ends of things have always saddened me, I wrote at the time.

Then my son entered kindergarten. There were times I couldn’t wait for my children to enter school. This, in a nutshell, is the cruel joke of parenthood. I am now, and forever will be, in a constant struggle for space and independence, coupled with lonesomeness in the moments I find it.

I’ve never seen the movie To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday, but I thought of that title several times over the last year. Thirty-seven was a big one for me. My year of changes, of feeling older, of seeing the end of the road. That sounds exaggerated, over-wrought. But it’s true. I see that there’s an end to this. I never could before, in that wonderful way of childhood and young adulthood, invincibility and joy. Now, I see that time does indeed fly with great big wings. I know when I am seventy I will look back on today and see softer edges, illuminated by the glow that the past inevitably holds for me. And I will think, “Man, that went fast.”

I turned 38 in February. Unfortunately, whatever black magic 37 possessed did not disappear instantaneously.

It was in that mindset, in April of this year of change, that I found out I’m BRCA positive–I have “the cancer gene,” the BRCA mutation, whatever of the various names for this relatively new diagnosis. I therefore have a much greater chance than the general population of having certain types of cancer, namely breast and ovarian. But also pancreatic, skin, and possibly lung and cervical. And who knows what else; it seems so new and good studies are long and slow, that nothing feels solid. Then again, I’ve been in a bit of denial and I’ve pushed it all off, which is unlike me. But I was diagnosed two weeks before my first book was published and I was determined to keep it at bay until after I could celebrate for awhile.

Well, my book tour is over so now’s the time, I suppose. (Though let’s be honest, there’s no way I’m putting my book too far in the background when it’s less than two months old; it still needs some motherly love.) My sister, also positive (which is actually misleading because in our cases, we don’t even have the gene; it’s missing from our DNA), dove in and learned all she could about the gene and our options. I had a “meeting” with her the other night to get up to speed. I felt slightly numb the entire time we talked, as I have pretty much since I found out.

Once in the car, though, a simple sight broke me: I drove past a father and daughter playing softball in a field. The father pitched to the daughter and she swung the bat  just as I passed and I could have sworn it was me and my father twenty-five years ago. And then time and motion and adulthood and childhood and joy and melancholy converged, and I cried all the way home.

There have been light moments—my sister and I laughed today as we talked about getting double mastectomies together and found ourselves saying things like, “December, maybe? I don’t know, when’s good for you?”

My mother and aunt are also BRCA-positive. Meanwhile, less than 1% of the population are BRCA-positive, according to ABC News. I’ve also heard it’s 2%. Regardless, we really represent in my family. We come to the table. Once your parent is BRCA-positive, you have a 50/50 chance of being positive yourself. So the women in my family flipped a coin four times in a row, and four times in a row we got BRCA-positive. I wish money was involved.

I hope to write about our experiences here; after all, it fits right in with the theme of this blog. But over the next few months, I might not be around a lot, and this is my explanation–to the readers and writers whom I usually visit and comment and correspond with. In this year of changes, there are a few more to come.

DNA

Publication: What’s Most Important

It’s getting close to publication day and I realize this is the first and last time I’ll ever have the “first book” experience. I’m trying to savor it, to step back and see this for what it is: an amazing moment and the accomplishment of something that’s been in my bones for a long, long time.

This lead-up to publication hasn’t all been easy, though. I got a bit frazzled for awhile there, and I wrote the following post that’s over at She Writes today: One Month from Publication and I’ve Figured Out What’s Important. I hope you’ll check it out to see what I’ve learned these last few weeks. I think it applies to any big goal, writer or not. And if that doesn’t tempt you, there’s the promise of gravy. You’ll see.

Thanks!