When I woke this morning after the first decent night of sleep in over a week, I had a moment of being amazed that it can get so cool at night during this intense heat wave. It was like a breath of clarity in the midst of confusion and chaos. Life has been confusing and chaotic lately. My one-month furlough began several days ago, and it has been a month since I closed on my new house. In that time there has been a tremendous amount of intense effort and endeavoring to ready the new house to be lived in, and I’ve been both guided by and partnered with my love, who can see things that I cannot, who can sense what can be, what shouldn’t be, what might be. Walls have been removed and every surface cared for. We’re getting there.
I’ve always told myself I’m bad at transitions. From the simplest goodbye, see you later, to the larger-scale move from city to city. Liminal spaces, no matter how big or how small are filled with unknowns, and while unknowns are not necessarily frightening in and of themselves, I’ve always been keenly aware of them. Of their numbers, of their depths. I can feel myself searching sometimes, the way your toes reach for the sandy bottom of the lake bed when swimming. I am awestruck by the limitless, by everything that seems without boundary or border, the night sky, love, deep water, work, forests, fire, joy. It is not fear that strikes me when I contemplate the unknown, though I fear it is taken as such. It is the unbounded nature of the possibilities – good, bad, or otherwise – that yawn open upon a kiss goodbye, the soft thump of the screen door, the boxing up of books and dishes, the zipping of a backpack. It is simply that there is so much.
There is an unbounded universe of next and sometimes I feel as though I am somehow trying to take it all in at once, like a vista glimpsed too quickly from a moving car, like breathing in the ocean, like seeing what the clouds taste like. I like the hug that lingers, that offers me one more breath of this, of now, of known.
As I plot out the next few days of work at the house, and packing at the old, and consider all that is enjambed within those phrases, I take a moment to float in this morning of transition, instead of reaching toward the sandy bottom. To appreciate how thoughtfully and thoroughly I’ve been buoyed by love through all of this.
There is more to say, and/but much work to do. Taste the clouds and/but enjoy that hug for one breath longer.
A few days ago, as I was out walking, I decided to see how running felt again. It had been a while, and when I was a little younger it was easy to start again after a lull. I’ve noticed in the past few years that getting back up to speed has taken longer, been a little more clunky. So, I took it slow. I interspersed some running into the walk and it felt like maybe I’d do it again. I ordered new shoes the next day. At the same time, I know how easy it is for me to fall out of the habit when life gets busy, and I wonder, if I loved it so much why does that happen? And I wonder, is wanting to try again more of an effort to connect the current me to a past version of me? Perhaps I am seeking running again, because it makes me feel strong, and I need evidence of strength right now.
With all the transition happening related to moving, which I’ve been writing about here for some time, I am feeling very vulnerable in many ways. I was sitting at my desk trying to work and I kept thinking of hermit crabs, and what I remembered of them from the Eric Carle story about the hermit crab, a children’s book I had read to my children long ago. They live in discarded shells from other sea creatures. When they outgrow one shell, they must leave it behind and find another more suitable one. I’ve been ruminating about this period of exposure, the seeking, the being in-between places. I think of this current house not so much as something I’ve outgrown, but as something with a shape better suited for another family. I’ve evolved differently, and it has been fitting awkwardly these days, as familiar as it is. Maybe that’s why I’m in search of some external marker of strength, as I’m moving between shells and the exposure is getting to me.
Sometimes I feel that we are evaluated in the same way that we explore a prospective new space. It is a relief to be recognized as something having both potential and current value, even when all our flaws are on display, as they especially are when the stress of transition exposes us.
I think too of the way humans in general move into someone else’s former shelter and make it their own. Some people do build houses specifically to suit their own tastes, but in general we search for something that will do the job. We fit ourselves into a space and are constrained by external factors like cost and availability, yet within such parameters we try to find something that suits our personality and our needs. We seek out something that mostly fits and we adapt.
I suspect many of us feel like hermit crabs right now, tucked away in a home that might be starting to feel too small, even if the fit seemed just fine early in March. Inside our homes we make attempts at keeping up habits that feel good, discarding some, taking on new ones. I try to keep writing, keep up with that habit. I’m revisiting the running habit. I imagine what these activities will look like in my new house, which I now can visualize. It’s there waiting for me, pending paperwork. Or any other disaster that a worrier like me can easily imagine.
Our habits are a huge part of our ability to adapt to new circumstances. We talk a lot these days about “normal” and “new normal.” But I don’t think we participate in various habits because they make our lives feel normal. I think we do them because they make us feel like ourselves. Washing the dishes in my new house will help acclimatize me to the new space, the performance of a routine domestic activity that says life goes on, here in this space now, instead of there and then. But the things that will help me to truly adapt will be cooking for people I love, writing, gardening, exploring the new neighborhood on walks and runs. We have habits that are integral to who we are, for better or worse, and our personal evolution is tied to which ones we hold on to and which ones we let go of. And we all have some we wish to let go of. I find it very easy to lose myself in an anxiety loop and I don’t know how much of that is a conscious embrace of a habit, or a chemical stress response I don’t have much control over. I think it is both – first one, then the other, so I continue to work on what I can control, I work on letting go of the habit, and I look forward to seeing if it’s easier to do in a new environment.
All this leads me to consider how much our homes make us who we are. Do they? Or are they reflections of who we are? Perhaps the answer is both, first one, then the other, but I don’t know which comes first. Perhaps this is another way we are like the hermit crab. We are this version of ourselves in one space.
We are what we inhabit.
And then we inch toward something else, changing either something about our home to better suit us, or finding a new space all together. We inch forward, we adapt, we inhabit a new version of ourselves, here and now.
Sometimes the new perspective you’ve been seeking is all wrong.
On a sunny Sunday, I drive through an unfamiliar neighborhood, trying to imagine what it would be like to live there. One hand on the steering wheel, one clutching a coffee cup, I imagine kitchens. I take a deep breath, but that underwater feeling is seeping in and I shiver for a moment. I turn off the AC and unroll the window and let in the July heat and humidity. I can’t picture the kitchen. I don’t see myself puttering around in this yard, or that one, and I drive on, overwhelmed and sinking.
I have written often here about different types of transitions I’ve experienced in recent weeks, months, years, and just when I feel I’ve ridden the wave of one, another arrives. I used to think “normal life” happened in the calm space between the waves. It was that place where you could float a while, regroup, catch your breath. And maybe life is like that sometimes. But right now, normal life is as much the waves as the calm, and there is not much time in the in-between place. I’ve been looking for a new way of looking at transitions, something to grab on to so that I can keep my head above water, but maybe what I really need to do is realize that transitions aren’t so much sometimes-things in life, they are what it means to be living.
I have often thought that there are multiple “coming of age” processes in adult life that mirror what we experience in our adolescent years, coming into early adulthood. Major shifts occur for all of us that we somehow readjust to, or we do so on a surface level such that onlookers can note that we’ve done it, but inwardly it feels like a transformation eons in the making, as if we are remaking the landscape of our own psyche.
But there are other processes more subtle, barely noticeable by the outside observer, that occur within us as the atmosphere of our lives shifts around us. They are the internal changes wrought by wave after wave of transition. Those close to us might notice we are especially moody, or sullen, maybe nervous, maybe quieter than normal, or just the opposite as we try and mask what’s going on under the surface. And internally, we are not shifting cooling lava into mountains but rather turning the same small stone over and over, examining the heft of it, the shape, the color, seeking answers to scarcely formed questions. We find ourselves inching in this fashion toward perspectives that will help us make sense of the way our place in our own life is morphing.
In a year I’ll be sending off my youngest for his freshman year of college, and my oldest will be starting her junior year, and I’ll be in some stage of the selling my house and moving and remaking home someplace else. It is difficult to know what the constants will be. And I love constants. I adore certainty. We crave what’s scarce.
I’ve spent some afternoons the past few weekends driving around different neighborhoods, trying to get a sense of where I might land when I sell my house. Sometimes it feels exciting, but it is daunting. Sometimes it is downright scary. It’s often lonely. The phrase I don’t know what I’m doing bubbles through my consciousness and I practice the tools I am supposed to use to keep my anxiety at bay. I think of successes, I think of the times I thought I didn’t know what I was doing but still got through the challenge. I’ll figure it out, I say. I’ll ask for help, I have people. I imagine what it will be like to be putting dishes away in a cute kitchen someplace else, and looking out the back window, my back window, and considering where I’ll plant a garden. But, still.
I drive back home, the brick and mortar analog to flesh and blood. It is almost a person, a character who’s been in my life for twenty years. It’s the place where most of my marriage happened, where it ended, the first and only place the kids called home. It’s walls and paint and memory and it is okay to be sentimental about it and when I think about leaving it I don’t feel a sense of loss or grief, but I do have a tremendous amount of respect for it as place and shelter. I am connected to it as a constant, a sure thing. Let’s go home. I know what that means. I know how it feels, and how hard I worked to have this address, these walls, be a constant for my children, for me, when times were uncertain, and that lost-at-sea feeling, treading water, was my every moment. But I learned to float, to swim, to find things to hold on to. I learned it here, in the time and place that this aging structure represents.
I’ve noticed, too, the way anxiety pools, the way unrelated worries dribble into one another like raindrops on a window. You can’t tell them apart anymore and all of them seem amplified beyond reasonableness. Because they have joined forces it becomes harder and harder to address them individually. You feel a little crazy. People start to notice. You make an effort to separate the puddle back into raindrops. The stress of preparing to sell a house, preparing for the senior year of the youngest child and his looming departure for college, these weighty changes muddy thinking on simpler things, because they are always there, dribbling into everything.
Sometimes it feels as though histories likewise pool into a present moment, as if an entire universe exists in the space of a breath. I notice, and wonder which of the raindrops are real, and which are fictions I created out of water molecules, histories and futures I’ve simply concocted while waves crashed over my head and I couldn’t see clearly. Sometimes all you can do is shake your head and try and clear it, shake off water the way a dog does.
Thinking of history, of memory this way, reminds me of something Ralph Waldo Emerson says in “Self-Reliance.” “But why,” as Emerson asks, “should you keep your head over your shoulder? Why drag about this monstrous corpse of your memory? . . . It seems to be a rule of wisdom never to rely on your memory alone, scarcely even in the acts of pure memory, but bring the past for judgment into the thousand-eyed present, and live ever in a new day. Trust your emotion.”
This “monstrous corpse” of our memory often appears as another wave hits, another transition demands to be managed, navigated, understood. The monstrous corpse floats next to us and whispers stories about how we failed, about how we once did trust our emotion, our instincts, and we were wrong. How did you not know, not see?, our memory echoes. We may believe the purpose of memory is to teach us, and sometimes it can, and sometimes, it does. And sometimes it tricks us. We must be careful to not fall into the trap of the binary, and see the lessons of our personal histories as good/bad, pain/not-pain. It isn’t all “if I’d only listened to my head” or “if I’d only trusted my heart.”
Maybe the only way for memory to be instructive is to do what Emerson suggests, and bring into the “thousand-eyed present” for judgment. Let’s see it from all angles before we let it chart a new course. He exhorts us to trust our emotion, and maybe that would be easier to do if we let ourselves see that it exists already in the “thousand-eyed present.” It is not a dark, wild, unknown thing. It is a living part of us, created of us, by us, and for us. We are often suspicious of our current instinct, trusting instead fallible, dead memories to guide us through this wave, and the next. But we have better ways. We have instinct, and knowledge, and strength, and we have people to reach out to, though often we feel like we shouldn’t need to reach out. We have an understanding that they are navigating their own waves and it would be rude to mention that we are drowning a little. But maybe we can buoy each other.
“March is a bargaining month. . . . How like happiness this is.”
Maybe it is because I live with dogs that I find myself, hound-like, snuggling well-loved ideas with familiar scents. I perpetually consider notions of happiness, transition, ambiguity, and identity—philosophical bones for these forty-something-year-old teeth to gnaw on. As March expires, I return to thoughts about negotiating with the past—and and the ghosts that hound us—in our pursuit of happiness.
Speaking of hounds, I look to mine for lessons, not really knowing what else to do with the half-wild thing I adopted a few months ago. We make tiny bits of progress and then leap back. I have written in other posts about his past, about how, during his most impressionable time he was kenneled, not learning, not bonding. I lecture myself about expectations and push away the feeling that I do not understand how to make this small plot of real estate a large enough home for this big-hearted, loud and loping beast. On my good days there is fresh resolve, an eager, well-meaning patience. On bad days, frustration boils, then quiets as I remind myself of his history, then simmers once again. I remind myself: past and present must some how find a way to live together.
We make bargains with the ghosts of our past. But often, we must learn to make them with ghosts and pasts of others, too.
I began writing this post a week ago and am returning to it on the last day of March. March is a bargaining month. I haggle with yard mud and slopped paws. Crocuses hem and haw, deciding when to take the risk. March begins a transition to spring that stretches through dreaded April snows. In Michigan, we do not fully believe it is spring until it is nearly summer. How like happiness this is.
It is easy to doubt that a joyful mood will live to see the light of the next day, and the next, until we realize finally that we’ve been happy all this time. How comfortable it is to doubt joy, given histories of endured loss. Sometimes, I decide to stop counting losses and try to only tally the wins—the joyful moments, the kitchen laughter, the soft morning kisses, the contented sighing of freshly walked dogs, the smell of spring rain, every sip of coffee, texts from teenage children checking in on me, on each other.
I decide to watch happy pile up around me. The losses will still come whether or not we are ready for them. Maybe, if we soak up enough sun we can take on the cold when it comes, take it on with a little more vigor and confidence. To always be steeling ourselves, waiting for the next trouble and trying to prepare for it, dilutes the joys we could be experiencing every day. Let the sun be the sun.
I know this: what today feels like a bump in the road would have felt like a steep and rocky mountain, nearly impassible, just a few years ago. Mostly. Sometimes obstacles still feel bigger than they are. Setbacks still sting—the broken appliance I can’t really afford to replace, another rejection from a literary journal, taxes, parenting stressors, the strange new noise the car is making—these are all still part of life, and can all gang up on me from time to time.
The practice of joy-tallying takes perspective, it takes meditative awareness, and is a conscious expenditure of psychic energy. And sometimes our zeal for it flags, and the cold seeps in even though the sun is shining. Sometimes we need to have another conversation with our ghosts. We need to make bargains about what we allow ourselves to remember, and to forget. In the end, it may be that what protects us the most from future pain is not, in fact, the memory of past pain. It may be that it is the willful act of forgetting that unthickens the skin and lets us feel the sun.
Right now, hosts of crickets that have been wintering as eggs or nymphs (depending on whether or not they are fall field crickets or spring field crickets, apparently). They have been feeling the changes in soil temperature. Like all of us in Michigan, they are trapped between the end of the cold and the beginning of warmth. They wait to see when there have been enough consecutive warm days to call it spring. Then instinct kicks in, warmth is certain, emergence is imminent. Maybe we don’t have to wait as long as the crickets do, but sometimes we have to trust the instinct and seek the warmth. I suspect letting happiness soak in, one joy at a time, yields a stronger protection against the cold than developing too thick a skin.
Enjoy the warmth, whenever you find it. Love, Cath
Endings—prolonged or abrupt—always leave more questions than answers, but they still push you forward.
When I started this blog, it was with a joyful heart, and part of that joy emanated from a relationship that has now arrived at its end. Endings always take me by surprise. My habit, in the wake of an ending, is to dissect, to analyze, to try and understand. It is a way of grieving, and the endpoint—the loss—is always the same. But there are things to glean along the way. You remember the good, you arrive at new understandings about what your boundaries and values are, you learn what you can, if you are willing to look.
Here, in the aftermath of this new heartbreak, that is what I’m trying to do. Learn. Remain open, and open hearted. It’s been a dark week, and I’ve noticed a pattern in the way I cope that began to occur in the wake of my divorce several years ago. Certain types of grief and injury—those related to matters of the heart—make me want to step back and close all the doors and windows. Not to heal, not to grieve, not even as a break from experiencing the flood of emotion. It is simply a closing. Certainly many people respond to endings in a similar way. For me, I’m sure it is a method of self-protection but I find I have to monitor it closely, because it closes down pathways to everything, even to the good things, to laughter and peace. It is probably a necessary part of the process of moving through the ending of a relationship, but I am more aware of this tendency now than I have been in the past. I’ve learned that this closed place is a nice place to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there.
Open Windows, Open Heart
There is a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier that ends with this line “And all the windows of my heart / I open to the day.” I find, increasingly, that this is where I want to land at the end of anything: open to the day. While my instincts may initially be to shut all the windows and doors—because there is a kind of reprieve there—it isn’t where I want to live.
I went to the beach alone just before dusk recently. The kids were both working, and I had so much to do. It would have made more sense to mow the lawn or clean the house. But I longed to be by water, to breathe different air. So I drove toward the setting sun. I laid out my blanket, with its stripes parallel to the water. I deposited my book and my reading glasses and my sunglasses, slid out of my sandals, and walked slowly through the warm sand to the water’s edge. It is early in summer and the water is much colder now in mid-June than it will be by the end of August. I waded in, the chill pressing against me until I grew accustomed to it. I floated, and listened, mostly to children’s laughter, and the waves and the wind, the far off chug of a boat motor.
Back on my blanket I let the setting sun soak into my skin and I was able to breathe deeply in the way I had been longing to. It felt like respite from all the harsh emotions that had abraded my heart for a week. And I decided to let it be this way, to be reprieve. I decided to let lake water and fading sunlight soothe, and to stop trying to make sense of inexplicable things. In a way, I embraced this as a beginning of whatever is next for me, this evening alone on the beach. It seemed to matter. In the days that followed though, I felt myself sinking like a stone, that having been skipped across the waves, finally lands and steadily makes its way to the bottom. I forgot about feeling buoyed, and about beginning. I forgot until here and now, as I write this, and as I look back on what the last two weeks have been like.
It Takes Everything
So in my endless quest for synthesis I have come to this conclusion: that it takes everything to move forward. It takes shutting down, and it takes opening up, it takes analysis, it takes embracing the ineffable, it takes effort, and it takes surrender. It takes all of these things, every single day. And when the world at large also seems to be falling apart, the personal tragedies we may endure simultaneously seem both insignificant and so full of tumult they are the only things we can focus on. Which is why it takes everything, every day, for all of us.