Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Permanently Transitional or Transitionally Permanent

I just spent the last two hours moving empty boxes from our storage space to the recycling bin (many apologies, neighbors, it was me who filled up the bins, and that was only 1/3 of what I still have to throw out.)  These boxes have been taking up space in the basement and my brain for the last two years and I'm finally getting rid of them.  It's not that they are in anyone's way but mine, but I have this slight neurosis about 'stuff' and I spend way too much time imagining how I can get rid of all the non-essentials in my life.  It's a little scary.  When we moved in here two years ago, we saved every single box thinking we'd be moving again within a year.  We're still here, and the boxes are beginning to smell.

My 17 year old niece is getting ready for her senior year in high school and looking forward to starting college and the 'rest of her life'.  Funny, I've felt the same way for the last 20 years, since I was her age.  (Okay, 22 years.)  I graduated high school, moved away to college, moved to another college, got married, moved to graduate school (mine), then moved to another graduate school (Mike's.)  I can't count how many apartments we've rented during our marriage. (Well, yes, I can.  Ten, plus two stints at our respective parents' houses.)  Our five year old abided in four of those in as many years.  We are on our third child and I'm still somehow waiting to start the 'rest of my life.'

But what is 'the rest of my life'?  Is it a steady job, a big, red, brick house, and new furniture?  Is it my kids in one school from Kindergarten through High School?  That was always the picture I had in my mind as a child, and it's still there, though faded somewhat.  We've been in such non-traditional situations - graduate student housing one year, a dorm the next - that I'm wondering if we'll ever fall into a 'normal' life.  The job market for composers isn't exactly booming, and when Mike finishes his Ph.D, who knows where we will end up.  We might have to be creative, cobbling together work for awhile (and move to Canada for health care and good schools.) Or, maybe there is a job out there just for him and we'll buy a smallish, red, brick house, and send our kids to the nearby one-room schoolhouse, perhaps somewhere in Idaho.

For all that yearned for stability, though, I love where we are right now.  Of any place we've ever lived, or will live, I think this place is unique. From the day we moved in, the girls became part of a wonderful group of friends just out our back door.  Their parents are our friends now, too; our social circle, and our support system.  I thank God practically every day for our neighbors, for their generosity and inclusion.  I love our dinners together, movie nights, vacations, trips to the museum, the skating rink, the beach, or the pool together.  Birthdays are celebrated en masse, and holidays.  As much as I crave moving back to the country, or on to a stand-alone house with a garden, it's hard to imagine not having these friends who are almost like family, right out my back door.  We've been fortunate, too, to have one more year with these friends, before graduation and new jobs send us all in different directions.  Because that is the inevitable.  This is student housing and we are part of the University of Chicago.  Dear friends move every year, and we say goodbye, wondering when it will be our turn to leave.  If we could stay here, in this situation, while our kids are growing up, I would.  But graduate school is transitional and there is always an unsettled feeling inside of me.  Hopefully we will have to collect new boxes next summer, pack up, and move on to the obvious next step.  At this point, I'm not very concerned about where we'll end up.  We'll be together as a family, eat good food, and create a rich life wherever we land.  It's too much to imagine it would be permanent, but I'll settle for a stable job situation, and the same floor plan for more than 2 years.   I will miss this state of affairs, though.  Being part of this has taught me more how to live in community, and although I know we'll never recreate what we have here, I hope wherever we go, or however nomadic we remain, we'll always find our tribe.      

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Finding the Past in a Box

I have a closet full of boxes to dig through, waiting for me at my childhood home.  They have sat there, innocuous, for over 20 years, but now they are like a big, menacing mountain, or a shadow, or something black and ugly to be dreaded.  No, Jimmy Hoffa's remains aren't in there - just hundreds of letters from friends, mix-tapes from old boyfriends, and mementos. 

Oh, boy, are there mementos.  You know those things you get from proms and homecomings, photo frames or wine glasses etched with the date and sappy theme of that particular dance? (Because truly, my date was the Wind Beneath My Wings, and I was Never Gonna Give Him Up.)  You know what I'm talking about if you are from the Midwest.  Or maybe New Jersey.  Well, I went to 16 of those dances over my high school career (and yes, keeping up that kind of social life was its own type of career) and I have not only the frame/wine glasses/souvenir photos from all of those, but all manner of cheesy items, including, but not limited to:  horrible sequin-y costumes from 80's and 90's talent shows, cheer-leading paraphernalia, and t-shirts from every play and association and club I belonged to.  (Did I mention my high school social life was a full-time job?)  It's not something I'm proud of.  I really wish I had focused more on my studies, practiced piano more, and dated less.  Really.  Because then I wouldn't have all this crap to sift through and decide whether to put it in the 'to keep' pile, the 'to donate' pile, or the 'burn-it-and-don't-ever-let-anyone-know-I-was-associated-with-it' pile.

Why did all this stuff end up there?  And why did I think I needed to remember my teenage life with cheap plastic champagne flutes, given to me 5 years before I was even legally allowed to drink?  What was so amazing about each and every experience we had during those 4 years of high school that we felt the need to memorialize it with a t-shirt signed by everyone present?  (T-shirts 5 sizes too big to even wear anymore because of that trend back in the early 90's to sport everything oversized and tucked into your pants with a belt, then pulled out a little.  Or a lot.  I guess it offset the big bangs.)  Sure, it's fun to pull it out of a box and say "Oh, I remember this!", but after doing that for awhile, the memories start to consume me.  Why do I need to go back there, that place that most people try to forget because it's the place where we were our most insecure, selfish selves?

The letters are going to be the hardest.  Real, physical letters, written after typewriters were invented, but long before any of us had even conceived of email.  Written in pen and ink, where the only shorthand was SWAK or LYLAS or TLA.  Loooooong before LMAO and ROFL.  Letters from friends I met at church camp each summer and corresponded with once or twice.  Letters from friends that continued from year to year, until we drifted apart in college or after marriage.  (And yes, I was married before I had my first email account.)  Letters from boyfriends who were good friends.  Letters from boys who I thought were just plain old good friends until I got married and they disappeared.  

I'm not certain why I've kept every word ever written to me.  I often thought I'd keep them until I was 80 and in a rocking chair with nothing else to do but re-read hundreds of old letters and reflect on my life, but the older I get, the less I reflecting I feel like doing.  I reflect too much as it is.  Besides, I think there will be more fun things to do when I'm an octogenarian.  My Grandma-in-Law got married and went dancing every day when she turned 80!  Maybe I wanted to leave a trace of who I am (or was) for my descendents.  However, I'm not sure my life and thoughts as an adolescent were all that unusual or interesting, and frankly, I think some things are better left forgotten.  Which brings me to the next box.  The box full of journals.

Or diaries, if you don't want to refer to my scribbling as serious 'journaling.'  They go back as far as when I could only print in capital letters, and came equipped with a lock and key.  I haven't gotten in there yet to re-read them, but I don't think I'm ready for that.  And I'm not sure there is anyone else I want to share them with, either.  I always imagined I'd have a little girl that would become an adult one day, and I'd share them with her to say, "See, your mom wasn't always a grown up!  I had a life before I was a mother!"  Now I have three little girls, and want so desperately for them not to do the kind of stupid things I did, or feel the selfish feelings I felt.  I want them to spend time thinking about saving the world, not about what Ryan So-and-So said to them at the lunch table on a particular day.  I want them to experience a little pain, and a little rejection, but not enough to cry for months, or years, at a time.  And maybe now, I just don't want them to know I was anything BUT their mother, because maybe they would roll their eyes and laugh at who I was.  It's one thing for them to do that about me in my role as 'mom', because every child will do that at some point, and I'm expecting it.  That part wouldn't hurt.  I just don't want them to be disappointed in who I was (or wasn't).  I didn't do anything spectacular.  I wasn't all that interesting as a kid.  I was pretty selfish and self-centered and mixed-up, and that's just not a pretty read.  So what to do with those journals?

Unfortunately, we don't have a working fireplace where I can tear the pages out and send them romantically up the chimney.  And maybe, even more unfortunately, I don't have a consistent written record of all the good days and times, especially now, with my busy, wonderful family.  I guess because we are so wonderfully busy, and the only time I have tended to write in my journals is when things seem to be hitting rock bottom and I'm trying to figure my way out.  There's no need to go to the counselor when things are going swimmingly, I guess.  (Not that it's always perfect, or ever perfect.  That's impossible.  But somehow, my current life with little kids forces me to be present.  And the present situation is always better than what goes on in the recesses of my mind.)

All this dredging up of the past is because my mom is selling our childhood home.  It has been on the market for a few years now, but she is finally serious enough about getting it off her shoulders as to clean out 36 years worth of accumulation.  It has been very hard for me to imagine her not being there, to imagine someone else in our space, and to know those chapters of life are closed forever.  I still call it home, even though I moved out at 18.  I love the house, the smells, the land - everything about it (except maybe the sulfur water!)  I just haven't wanted to let go yet, but after last weekend, when we started going through all the closets in earnest, I realized I don't need the contents of those boxes to remember what was good and redeeming about my growing-up years.  Not the tchotchkes, not the letters, not even the beautiful, old house itself.  Appropriately enough, I found the following in the book I was reading to the girls the other night.


Laura called out softly, "What are days of auld lang syne, Pa?"

"They are the days of a long time ago, Laura, " Pa said.  "Go to sleep, now."

But Laura lay awake a little while, listening to Pa's fiddle softly playing and to the lonely sound of the wind in the Big Woods.  She looked at Pa sitting on the bench by the hearth, the fire-light gleaming on his brown hair and beard and glistening on the honey-brown fiddle.  She looked at Ma, gently rocking and knitting.

She though to herself, "This is now."

She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the fire-light and the music, were now.  They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now.  It can never be a long time ago.