Taking the long way home

Twenty-five summers ago, I lived in a sweet little house in a charming old southeast Portland neighborhood. It was the first house I owned, bought not long after I married and started my first teaching job.

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It was only a few blocks from a park where I walked every day with my dog, Billie. The previous winter we’d gone to the mall one Sunday morning to buy a Billie Holiday CD (remember those?), but the record store was closed. The pet store wasn’t. This was before I knew about puppy mills. Before I knew the first thing about taking care of another living being. Or about making commitments.

That summer, Billie and I went on many walks, traversing up and down the sidewalks of our neighborhood’s tree-lined streets. I remember looking up into the trees, thinking that their branches looked like canopies. I wrote that into a poem I worked on later that fall, thinking that no one else had ever seen how trees looked like canopies. I didn’t know, then, that many people have seen canopies when looking up at trees that flank both sides of a street. These were so different from the trees of my childhood neighborhood, which was filled with Douglas fir and cedar. We had no sidewalks, nor any tree-lined streets. It didn’t occur to me that these new trees were common, or that my perception of them might be.

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I was lonely that summer. I had lived in that charming neighborhood less than a year, and in that city for less than two. I had spent most of those months working the long days of a first-year teacher. Although there were people at work I was friendly with, I hadn’t made any real friends, there or anywhere else.

My husband worked during the days and studied for the MCAT in the evenings. I spent my days walking the dog, working out to an aerobics TV show, sanding (probably lead-filled) paint from the woodwork of our 1920’s house (I didn’t know about lead-based paint then, either, even though I should have) while watching soap operas, planning dinner, and waiting for the hour or so I’d get his company when he came home. I made the uninsulated attic into the kind of private space I longed for as a teen-ager, not realizing that it would always be too hot up there in the summer and too cold in the winter, or that I didn’t need such a space because the whole house was my space. There was nothing I needed sanctuary from within its walls.

That husband–he was a smart, funny, earnest, kind, and gentle person who, like me, had no business getting married or adopting dogs. He was as good to me as any good person can be who is too young to get married. I was not as good to him. Or to myself.

Instead of facing the chasm within that my loneliness illuminated with blinding intensity, I ran away from it. I ran away from him, and our dog, and the house, and the neighborhood, and the park filled with geese that Billie loved to bark at. I ran away from all of it, too blind and scared to see that I had everything I’d ever wanted, right there:  a good person who loved me, a safe and cozy home, meaningful work, the promise of children with a man who would be a good father to them.

I didn’t know that many, many people had looked up into the same void and seen the same thing I’d seen, and given it the same wrong names I gave it.

*******

The weekend before last, Cane and I drove through my old neighborhood on our way to spend a late afternoon on the river. As I always do when driving through there, I felt nostalgic and wistful. The aftertaste of regret lingered at the back of my throat.

I thought of my house project, my recent fascination with small, working-class houses. My first husband and I bought that first house with the salaries of a first-year teacher and a lab tech. Although Cane and I both have equity in another home and advanced degrees and decades of work in our field, this neighborhood is out of our reach now, even if we could make our lives fit within its geographic boundaries. That is due as much to our respective (poor) life choices as to Portland’s gentrification, and we know the sting we feel is nothing compared to the pain of those whose communities are lost to them through the effects of systemic racism and other injustices. Still, it hurts.

As we drove through again on our way home, I thought about the home of a colleague I’d recently visited. Her lovely Portland house sits in an even more charming neighborhood, and it is filled with photos of her family. I could see how all of them have grown, together, through two decades or more. I imagined, briefly, the home and life I might have had if I’d faced my demons 25 years ago, if I hadn’t left that kind boy I married and we’d done the hard work of growing up together.

“I should never have left here,” I said to Cane as we drove back home. “I had everything I wanted, but I couldn’t see it.”

“Well, then, you wouldn’t have had your children,” he said.

“Oh, I know. I know. That’s what I always tell myself. But as my daughter reminds me whenever I say that’s why I’ll never regret marrying their dad, I probably would have had different children I love as much as I love them. I’d never have known them, so I wouldn’t have missed them.”

“You can’t know that,” he said. “You might not have been able to have any children at all.”

He is, of course, right. We can never really know where a different choice at a fork in our life’s road might have taken us. We always imagine the best-case scenario when we’re punishing ourselves for the choices we didn’t make but wish we had. In mine, I somehow get to have the same children I have now.

“Well,” I said, reaching for the hand of the smart, funny, earnest, kind, and gentle man who loves me now and takes no offense when I suggest that perhaps I should be married to someone else, “I know I wouldn’t be sitting here with you, so I guess I need to just get over all that.” I squeezed his hand, hoping he knew I meant it, hoping my daughter knows that any life I might have had without her and her brother would have been a lesser one.

******

On one my friend Jill’s recent, always-wonderful weekly list of Something Good, I found this post by Austin Kleon, about bliss stations. In it, he writes:

“It’s felt impossible lately not to be distracted and despondent. I’m trying to spend as much time at my bliss station as I can.”

Between events in the world around us and those in my own private world, I know more than I’d like to about being distracted and despondent. But what is a bliss station? Kleon, quoting Joseph Campbell, says that it is

“a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation.”

Kleon wonders if it is enough to have either a particular place or a particular time, and reading his words I realized that in this summer I have been lucky enough to have both:  Time almost every morning, and my own, dedicated creative space.

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Although I found solace in this space during the spring, over the weeks of this summer I have entered it only to iron clothes or drop off junk I didn’t want to take the time to find a real home for.

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I thought of another post by another friend, Shannon’s musings about how hard it can be to get started again after a creative dry spell.

I thought about how I have, right now, things I wanted for years:  time and space to create. I thought of all the times in my life I’ve been blind to what is in front of me, and how I don’t want to be that way any more.

I thought about how good it would be to spit the taste of regret out of my mouth.

*****

I went back to my old neighborhood, to take photos for my project. To take inventory. To confront my regrets. To see.

The old park, which once had a big, flat, grassy open field, swing sets, and a square, man-made pond, has been transformed into a natural wild space.

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I didn’t see any of the geese Billie used to chase, but a stream was home to delightful ducks.

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I walked the neighborhood sidewalks I used to walk with Billie, remembering the young woman I was 25 years ago. Trying to figure out how to forgive her.

I took photos of houses I might want to do something with.

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You can’t see the older woman sitting in a chair in front of the window, reading a book. But she’s there.

I left when I felt a migraine coming on. I went home and took a nap, grateful for the time and space to do that.

******

A few days later, I went into my creative space, wondering if I could cultivate bliss there. I pulled out my scraps of text about houses.

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I set aside a few that spoke to me, when I thought about my first house.

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I sketched it.

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That was enough for one day.

*****

I had coffee one morning with a friend who is also sending a child to college in a few weeks. The day my daughter flies out, she will be heading south with her husband and son in a car packed with the college supplies that have been accumulating on her dining room table all summer.

We compared notes on the unfortunate places we’ve been overcome by tears.

“I couldn’t stop crying in the detergent row at Target,” she said. “Another woman took a tissue from the box in her cart and gave it to me.”

We laughed.

“I’ve come to understand,” I said, “that as much as I’m crying about how I will miss her–and I will, terribly–I’m also crying over my own mortality.” She nodded. We struggled for words to capture what it is, exactly, we’re mourning.

“Their lives aren’t going to be about us any more.”

“It’s just gone so quickly. I’m not ready to let it go.”

“Our time has passed. It’s someone else’s turn.”

“And it’s too late now to do some things right.”

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*****

I saw my therapist.

“I don’t want to talk about how things are going,” I said. “I don’t want to talk about Cane or his daughter or my daughter leaving for college or what’s happening with my son. I want to stop dealing with the surface of things.”

“OK,” she said. “What does that mean?”

“Here,” I said, handing her a book open to a poem. “I wrote this maybe 20 years ago.”

A Map to the Future

You try not to despise her.
You know it isn’t really fair:
What more could be expected
of one such as she,
growing in the twin shadows
of anger and expectation?

She was the kind of girl who ran
to the edges of cliffs and jumped,
just jumped–
not because she was daring
but because she didn’t know
there were cliffs and once there,
jumping seemed the only option.
She was that blind
to her own geography.

You walk away
when you sense her
wandering through the dark
valleys of memory, wish
she could be forever exiled.
You can’t help but regret
all that she lost or wasted,
and you can’t seem to forgive her
for what she never knew,
want only to put that floundering
child away from you, forever,

do not see that you must
carry her with you
if you are ever to climb
from your desperate canyons
and lie upon the grassy meadows
that frame those gaping holes.

“It’s beautiful,” she said.

“I want to know how to do it,” I said.

*****

Last Saturday I returned to my bliss station again.

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That morning, my daughter found me there. As she settled into the corner chair, I stopped what I was doing. I sat on the floor, and we chatted for a good long time–about the election, and how different some things were when I was her age, and about college, and the effects of growing up with dysfunction in your family, and the meaning of life, and what kind of life she wants to have.

“My therapist told me the other day that it takes three generations for a family to fully recover from addiction, abuse, trauma,” I told her. “But it gets better with each one.”

It was just the two of us home together all day. I vacuumed the floor of her room, which she (and sometimes I) have been cleaning out for the past two weeks. It is still filled with her clothes, her toiletries, her scent, but it is empty of the things that made it hers. I did cry some, alone in there, but not the way I did the morning I took all the bags of stuff she no longer wants to the thrift store–her cheerleading uniform, her many school spirit t-shirts, the vampire series books she devoured as a young teen, the photo display thingy she wanted when we re-did her room a few summers ago, the pottery she painted over the course of many trips to visit her grandparents.

“Do you think we’re ever going to paint pottery again?” I asked her as she put those things in the bag.

“If you pay,” she said, grinning. I kept two small pieces and let the rest go. She thought I was being silly to keep them, that I should let go of all of them. Thinking of the clay monster I made in third grade that resides, still, in my parents’ bedroom, I told her that it’s good to be silly sometimes.

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After vacuuming, I thought about doing more of the things on my never-done to-do list, but she wanted me to watch Gilmore Girls with her, so I did. Somewhere during the second episode, I decided that I wasn’t going to do any of those things that day. I was going to just be, with my girl, all day long.

We might not get this again before she leaves, I thought, just the two of us alone for the whole day.

We puttered around a bit before going out to get pedicures. We had dinner at our favorite noodle place. We came home and made popcorn and watched Legally Blonde, an old favorite of hers. She deconstructed the feminist messages she sees in it. She left before the movie ended, to accept a last-minute invitation from friends.

I watched the end of the movie by myself, feeling the emptiness of the house settle around me. I didn’t let myself shrug it off my shoulders. The weight of it was uncomfortable, but I could hold it.

I thought about how I have, right now, things I’ve wanted for years. I felt grateful that the woman I’ve become is  stronger than that girl I was 25 years ago. That I knew it wouldn’t be nighttime in an empty house forever–that the next morning I would wake up to a day filled with light and the return of people I love, where I could enter into a bliss station and begin this post and keep working on projects with eyes that are becoming increasingly clear.

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Poem ©2002 by Bellowing Ark Press.

 

 

13 thoughts on “Taking the long way home

  1. Carolyn Flynn says:

    Hi Rita,
    I love reading your blogs! You are an inspiration for me to try writing one. I often have so many thoughts on a subject or feeling that I really just need to write them down. I just want you to know that I am thinking of you as you move on to a different phase in your life as your kids leave the nest. My daughter is now 24 and lives in Seattle. My son is 22 – he went to college in Montana for a year and then took a couple of years off to work and ski, both of which he loves. He is going back to Montana this fall (at least that’s what he told me 6 weeks ago). Your daughter sounds alot like mine – smart, savvy, politically in-tune, and concerned about fairness and justness in this world. I don’t know much about your son, but it sounds like he might be more the quiet type, like mine. Just know that even as they leave the nest, you are their anchor. They will be back, changed in some ways, but not in others. Each time they come home, it’s easier to watch them leave. You will probably worry alot at first, but then you will feel the freedom that comes with them not living under your roof (when are they coming home with the car?, are they going to be hungry when they get home?, I wish they would clean their room, etc.). Just know I am thinking of you these next couple of weeks. I don’t know if this is any comfort, but I have a niece who goes to George Washington University and will be a Senior this fall. Her name is Melissa. If Grace needs anything, I’m sure she would be happy to talk or meet. Hugs to you!

    Carolyn

    • Rita says:

      Hi Carolyn! Thank you so much for writing. I always encourage everyone to write if they feel the urge. I would love to see what you have to say.

      And thanks for the postcard from the other side of the parenting transition. I know that it will all be OK. I know that part of the sweetness of this bittersweet time is that she is going off to do great things. It is why she is happy, and it’s hard to let happy go. I know that if things were not so bright, it wouldn’t feel like I’m losing this pretty, shiny thing. Not sure if that makes much sense. I guess, with respect to her, I’m feeling the way I felt when they began to grow out of being babies: I just want more time! Don’t we all? 🙂

      And thank you for the lifeline. I will pass it on to her. Hugs right back at you. I hope we get to meet up again IRL someday.

  2. Kari says:

    Wow.
    I love posts like these because they take me away from my life at the moment.
    I have so many thoughts but right now, I just can’t put them into words.
    I am sending you love this month because I know it will be a hard one.
    But you have all of us along for the ride.
    Love you.

    • Rita says:

      And you all help me more than you know. It’s a good hard, you know? Good things happening for my child, and the kind of things that are supposed to happen. Lots of bittersweet–which is so much better than just bitter. Love to you, too.

  3. Deborah says:

    Such an interesting, thoughtful and thought-making post Rita. Thank you.

    I’m though the other side of the parenting transition too, and have found it to be very rewarding even thoughat times hard – the hardest bits being when our youngest son for about three years seemed to despise us and barely spoke to us. We managed to hang on in there, only insisting on some mutual respect. The turning point was when he moved away from home at only 17 to work and live in London. He grew up fast then, and in a good way. Now he’s married to a lovely young woman (who in the greatest of life’s ironies reminds me of myself at her age), they live nearby to us, and we see them often and get on well together.

    I’m at least the third, more like fourth, generation in a tough cycle, and I can attest to the power of deciding to do things differently., and being honest about it. We change things when we make our own rules that come from deep within us, drawing on what we know to be good and real and true.

    I hope this makes some sense to you. The thoughts were sparked by your writing, which moved me.

    Kindest regards

    Deborah
    Deborah recently posted…June and July: the allotment updateMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      This makes much sense to me (and gives me hope). I love “drawing on what we know to be good and real and true.” That’s the key, isn’t it? Thank you for taking the time to write back to me.

  4. Kate says:

    This is a lovely thoughtful post on the way we think our lives should turn out, the way they do, and how we reconcile that. It’s also masterful braiding of scenes, you lyric poet, you.

    • Rita says:

      Thank you, Kate. You have more influence on this one than you probably know. I kinda like the idea of being a lyric essayist. Is that a thing?

  5. Marian says:

    Oh, Rita, my heart goes out to you with this post …

    First off, I too ran away from something many years ago (28 years ago, in my case), and my gosh, I SO understand where you’re coming from with your feelings of regret. Your poem could just as easily represent ME, Rita; I still think of what I gave up, still beat myself up for “not being capable”, even though I can now (finally, finally) see the truth you expressed so eloquently with the lines, “What more could be expected / of one such as she, / growing in the twin shadows / of anger and expectation?” I know now that my anger at the young me is unreasonable, and worse, that in continuing to berate that girl I am actually expressing a wish to be someone other than who I am, which is of course an impossible dream and a recipe for unhappiness.

    And this is me as well — “We always imagine the best-case scenario when we’re punishing ourselves for the choices we didn’t make but wish we had”. And my husband is just like Cane; he always greets my “what-ifs” with reasoned and logical replies. “What would you want to give up?” he’ll ask me, whenever I express my regrets. And when I say, “Nothing”, he says, “Well, it doesn’t work that way; your life would not be the same if you had pursued X.” And I know he’s right (dammit) but my mind can’t stop going down those paths … (and I envy him, for seemingly NEVER going down those paths!).

    You mention that you spoke with your daughter about “the effects of growing up with dysfunction in your family”, and oh, how I wish someone had spoken to the young me about that. I might just have gone a bit easier on myself had I known how deeply those experiences would affect me even after I was clear of it; it might have provided explanations, and doused the debilitating search for excuses (if that makes sense?). I feel sometimes that my one and only goal in parenting has been to make sure that there was NO ongoing cycle of abuse and trauma, so much so that I have felt that this particular part of your exchange with your friend — “Our time has passed. It’s someone else’s turn” was actually true of me right from the very beginning, when I first had my children. (Which, to be honest, has sometimes felt like me completely subsuming myself, which I recognize as not being the healthiest way to live.) I had always thought I was a first generation (in the sense of familial dysfunction) but I’ve been talking with my aunt on my father’s side recently and it’s been an eye-opener; I may actually be third generation. Maybe (according to your therapist) that means I have a decent chance of being successful in stopping it?

    On a lighter note: how the heck did you get your daughter to give away all that memorabilia?!?! Was this her idea or yours? Because I’ve been gently asking, and my daughter’s room STILL contains way too much “stuff” (and this, after two school years away, and with this past summer living away as well) … and my 17 year-old son’s room …. oh. my. gosh! But I have (more or less) given up, because the more I talked about it this summer, the more he dug his heels in, and at some point it occurred to me that I didn’t want his last summer at home to end up being all about us fighting over his room 🙁 .
    Marian recently posted…Randomly, On a Summer’s DayMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      So appreciate your thoughtful and heartfelt responses, Marian. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could talk in person? And wouldn’t it be nice if logic and reason could bring our emotions in line when they are behaving like toddlers? 🙂

      About the 3 generations thing: She was talking about the process of recovery. She said that it takes 3 generations, once recovery work has begun, for a family to heal. Thinking about that just a little, I have questions. It seems that if the generation 1 person undertakes that work as a young adult it will have far different effects on a family than if they do that in older age. What happens if those in generation 2 don’t continue the work of healing? What if some members do and others don’t? I think it’s more complex than “it takes 3 generations to heal” might indicate. What I took away from it was a truth that is both sobering/liberating, regardless of the answers to these questions: I can’t fix it all/I don’t need to hold myself responsible for fixing it all. Boy, I wish I could fix it all. But I can’t–so I can stop beating myself up over that. I hope you can cut yourself some slack, too. 🙂

      As for the room–that was mostly her. She is a huge pack rat, but is not a sentimental person, especially when it comes to things. She is also planning not to be back much. She’s already planning summer experiences in DC for most of her summers. We (lovingly) call her Spock because her decision-making is so based on reason/rational thought, and she has told me that her room won’t really be her room any more and so there is no need to keep it as such. And I think she said something like, “I want to be the one to go through all this stuff and decide what to do with it, not you.” I think my talk about possibly selling the house and downsizing made her realize that her room won’t always be her room sooner than it might otherwise have happened. I am not Spock. While I understand logically that there is no reason to keep her room as-is (a sort of shrine to her childhood), the emotional part of me wishes that after she is gone I could go into that version of her room (cleaned, though) and have it still be just the way it was. Gah, this stuff is hard! Thanks for keeping me company as I wade through the emotional morass of letting her go.

  6. Kate says:

    When I start my rumblings of how things could have been different, “if I had only” Jesse always starts singing Dave Matthews Dancing Nancies “Could I have been anyone other than meeeeee?” which ALMOST always makes me laugh. (Sometimes it really makes me mad) But as much as I love the idea of the life I would have lived had I made a few different choices – give me the same choices with the same knowledge and I’d make them the exact same way again. And some of them I’d still choose even with hindsight.

    But what does it say that I can’t think of a woman I am truly close to who wouldn’t relate to your poem in one way or another? And the amount of time I spent in counseling dealing with the girl who would jump off cliffs boggles my mind.

    Finally, I’m glad you had the opportunity to enjoy a one on one day doing that special kind of nothing/everything that never seems to happen enough.
    Kate recently posted…We Went to MichiganMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      I have never really understood the appeal of Dave Matthews. Had to google to find that song–and I can see how it would usually make you laugh but not always. 🙂 I know that if I had the same knowledge I had then I’d have made the same choices. With hindsight I would have made several significant ones differently. And then I would have a whole different life–one with probably a different set of regrets. And without the people whom I now love so deeply it boggles me.

      That day was wonderful. The trick, I’ve decided, is giving myself permission. I’m glad it only took me until noon to fully acknowledge that I was going to take the day off from obligation. Otherwise, we can do the same things but without the same joy. I know there’s a metaphor for life in there… 🙂

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