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Explaining my absence is probably the first order of business. As I mentioned before the end of spring semester is its own beast. Like the end of any other term it is hectic and stressful, but there is some additional dark magic at work in academy during the month of April. Every demand on your time, report to write, email to send, meeting to attend adds some kind of exponential weight and stress. Additionally this year as I trudged through April, I suddenly felt the significance of everything that has happened to me in the last two years. In many ways the stress, my mood, and my general exhaustion mirrored the way I felt as I finished my dissertation and approached graduation.
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A consistent theme throughout my post-divorce writing is the joy, revelation, and tension between the past and the present. The granola post probably captures the idea, and the joy of it, most clearly. The tension and the revelation are, I think, more diffuse. In my experience, they sneak up on me; the moments of the most joy and revelation in the present made more so by their inevitable contrast to the past. Moving through this past weekend, chronicling it with pictures that deliberately avoid faces, recovering from the bouts of laughter that left me breathless, I planned a joyful, celebratory post about the impromptu first party in my home, about old friendships, about bringing together old and new friends. Perhaps this post is still that, there is still joy and celebration, but all of that now exists in the contrast.
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Attending the regional conference for my profession, I reconnected with friends, attended a few panels and meetings, and then promptly let myself be lured away from the crowds, choosing a quiet beer with a few friends over the conference reception. Since I hadn’t seen these particular friends in at least three – four years, and this was the longest amount of time we’d all spent in the same place, I reasoned that this still counted as visibility. The next day I attended sessions, continued to meet with friends, and generally let myself follow my permission slip to be in the moment and accept the adventures that came to me.
I forget, sometimes, how powerful the permission slip can be. These days there is nearly always one in my pocket when I have one, tucked into my bra when I don’t. A mix of the things I most need reminding of, the messages vary and either wouldn’t make sense to anyone else or might seem banal: belong to myself, own my authority, be in the moment, shine, be rooted. Often I forget about them entirely until one slips out of my pocket when I reach for my lipstick or flutters to the ground as I get ready for bed in the evening. Permissions slips were certainly not on my mind when my friend and I entered our hotel bar that evening, which probably explains why I was ready and a little surprised at the adventure which followed. Picking up a guy in the hotel bar is probably about as banal as you can get for a somewhat newly divorced woman, so I won’t bore you with all the details. The only important elements were that it was fun for me, it counts as visibility, and as you can expect from me I’ve analyzed it all for every possible meaning and lesson. Don’t worry, I won’t bore you with all of those either.
Spring Break came this week, just in time. Reading Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost seemed like a good start for a week in which I wanted to step away from all the pressure and exhaustion of this first year.
Solnit opens with a discussion of losing yourself, of the possibilities of an open door, and follows it up meditating on the blue of distance and longing. In the course of our evening, Magnum P.I. (as Dr. Mags dubbed him)asked me what I wanted. Inspired by the near anonymity of it all and the knowledge that I would never see him again, I surprised myself and told him. “As an academic, I want someone or something that shuts my brain off.” No, I wasn’t very articulate, but I’d had a couple of glasses of wine and it was the best that I could do to describe it. The permission slips might tell me it is okay to be in the moment, to accept the adventures, but they don’t turn off the constant assessing and analyzing, or the anxieties that come with it.
As she often does, Solnit seems to articulate my feelings better than I can. What I tried to describe to Magnum was the way I want to stop the assessing, the analyzing and truly lose myself in a moment. Solnit describes it:
To lose yourself: a voluptuous surrender, lost in your arms, lost to the world, utterly immersed in what is present so that its surroundings fade away. In Bejamin’s terms, to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery. And one does not get lost but loses oneself, with the implication that it is a conscious choice, a chosen surrender, a psychic state achievable through geography.
Solnit and Benjamin are referring to losing yourself in your surroundings, whether city or country, hence the reference to geography. For me, right now, I am caught longing for the choice, for the ability to lose myself, that feels so far out of my grasp. I try. I walk around the lake to visit the heron. I pause on my bridge to feel the breeze, to watch the water ripple, to lose myself in that moment. I am stuck in the longing though, wanting to choose the surrender, but always too aware. Discussing longing and the blue of distant horizons, Solnit asks, “If you can look across the distance without wanting to close it up, if you can own your longing in the same way that you own the beauty of that blue that can never be possessed?”
Crossing the distance the blue we longed to find recedes to the next horizon, the thing or feeling we long to possess shifts and changes when we acquire it. Perhaps losing myself is a choice I make or not, but maybe it isn’t a choice that can be made in the moment. Yes, as I described I analyzed every moment from my night at the bar. I assessed and learned my lessons, hopefully. My brain worked and worked for the whole drive home. As I described my deepest longing to a stranger, though, I didn’t recognize that in a way I’d already gotten there. I was wholly there, in that moment, in the uncertainty and mystery of getting to know someone, of not knowing where the night would take me. My longing for someone or something to shut my brain off remained the beautiful blue of the far horizon; maybe, it, like that blue, is even something that can never be possessed. That night though, I was fully present and my brain was off; maybe that is how I can own my longing, learn to recognize how it can be fulfilled by my immediate surroundings.
In general my approach to the challenges life throws my way is put my head down and just keep moving forward. “The only way out is through it” has been my guiding principle since before I could articulate it. The difficulty with this approach is that it requires some pretty hefty armour and deflection. A lot of my energy is used up putting off tears until later. Unfortunately, then when I get to “later” it is often difficult to let myself feel the feeling and get those tears out. I need a catalyst, at least this is my explanation for why, when I feel the most depressed and out of sorts, my first instinct is to find the music, movie, or book that is going to depress me the furthest.
Going through my first major break up I listed to the Jayhawks’, Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass, non-stop for a good two weeks. The Hours is my go to, “I need a good cry movie.” The ex-husband used to joke about hiding all the sharp objects whenever I suggest I needed to watch it. Even now, when I have gotten a lot better about practicing vulnerability and letting myself feel those feelings, when I am at my lowest it will typically show in the music I’m listening and the films I am watching.
Lori McKenna is the current sound track to my heartbreak. Pandora’s algorithm put her into my Neko Case station and there wasn’t a song from Bittertown or her earlier albums, that didn’t capture what it felt like to live through those last years of my marriage. These days I take it as a good sign that during my daily commute concerts in the car, I often find myself skipping the tracks I felt most deeply during those years, like “If You Ask,” “Swallows Me Whole,” or “If He Tried.” The strength, joy, tenderness, and struggle I have in this new life requires something different. Elvis Costello, Soundgarden, Neko Case, and the songs that Ouiser, who is the Queen of all mix-tapes, put on my divorce albums.
Film wise well, it is no secret that I have been binging on Hallmark Channel stuff this year. It started with “The Good Witch” and “When Calls the Heart” binges on Netflix while my cable was paused. When the cable turned back on, I descended into the cozy mystery movies, desperately wishing I could be Aurora Teagarden; and by the Christmas in July event, when I needed every escape I could find from the House of Plagues, I knew I had a problem. Not only was Hallmark practically the only channel I watched, I’d started to dissect and analyze the films. Good dialogue, but no chemistry between the leads. Chemistry between the leads, but nothing can make up for the ridiculousness of this plot. To this day I give myself a pat on the back for refusing to watch anything that involves someone secretly falling for royalty. (What? Even I have my standards!)
This holiday season the number of people watching Hallmark channel movies to escape the reality of this horrible, rotten, no good year is great enough that a number of think pieces have circulated, and SNL even did a great skit about the movies. (Yes, Canadian Handsome is a thing.) Last week, though, hanging out with friends and new acquaintances from my adopted neighborhood, I was surprised when someone admitted they also watch Hallmark movies, and justified it by saying, “Sometimes you need something to turn the day around.” Beers were involved in this particular hang out session, so who knows what exactly was said, but it was something to that effect. My surprise wasn’t actually that someone else at the table was also watching, and recording, Hallmark movies. We all need an escape every now and then. I have often characterized my watching of Hallmark movies as blatant escapism, fluff for a brain that just doesn’t want to think about things anymore, in that moment my surprise, however, was that I realized escapism wasn’t the only thing I wanted from these movies.
In what I am coming to realize happens more often than not when a large group of friends, some married some divorced, get together, someone inevitably asks, “Would you do it (fall in love / get married) again?” My fellow Hallmark aficionado replied quickly with, “Yes. Absolutely. I still believe in it.” I deflected my answer and shifted the conversation. At this point, just beginning year two and barely dipping my toes in the dating pool, I want to believe, but I am not sure I do. I want the romance I see in the Hallmark movies, and that is my escape, but it is also the thing that will undoes me. My current favorite Christmas movie is the Mistletoe Inn. There are a lot of stupid reasons it is my favorite, but one is a moment when after a brief snow ball fight, David Alpay and Alicia Witt end up in a snow bank. They look longingly at each other for a few seconds, and then he reaches over and pushes a lock of hair behind her ear. It is a mid-movie scene, which means the moment is broken and nothing happens. That gesture though, I physically long for it, and I want to believe it will happen again. Every few weeks, when driving home from work I find myself running my own fingers through my hair a little more than normal and singing along with a little more feeling to the pre-divorce songs, I know I need a romance fix and it is going to be a Hallmark movie night.
Those nights, though, they start out soothing, but most often end differently. The romance fix also bursts the bubble, forces me to confront the emotions I’ve been putting off. On at least one, I shut the tv off mid-movie, cleaned the kitchen, and went to bed. Single life is so glamorous. As I have already said, this season is hard. Part of what makes it hard is the reflection, the thinking back about what was, while also trying to imagine a future. Trying to remember the story my ex-husband and I prized, the one of fated meetings, and an elopement that seemed to come straight out of a Hallmark movie. Trying to believe that someday, hopefully not in a snowbank, someone will reach over and tuck my hair behind my ear, or let their hand keep moving and run their fingers all the way through it. This morning, as I tried to figure out my Hallmark movie phase beyond the escapism, beyond the way they hold out a glittery and idealized image of romance, I realized that in a way the Hallmark movies are my old pattern. When I am low, or craving something, find the thing that is going to make it worse. The glittery, ideal, storybook romance isn’t just aspirational it is reflective. It reflects what I thought I had, and makes me see what was never really there.
One of Lori McKenna songs that I cherished pre-divorce, “Don’t Tell Her,” illustrates this even better. In the song there is a line, “I can’t stand the thought of anyone knowing me the way you do.” Pre-divorce this line represented all the time I’d put into my marriage, all the history, and captured the way I couldn’t imagine finding that with anyone else. What I can see now, as this year forces me to reflect on everything, is that my ex-husband never knew me that way. The Hallmark movies, where people know the perfect gifts to give, the perfect things to say, and the perfect moments to reveal their feelings, they also make me confront the reality that what I thought was deep love and connection didn’t end up that way. That if it is true my ex-husband never really knew me the way I wanted him to, then it is also true that I never knew him the way he needed me to.
“Would I do it again?”
“Do I really still believe?”
I want to say, “Yes. Absolutely.” I just don’t know that I can, yet. Maybe after a few more Hallmark movies, I will.
Next to the coffee pot on my kitchen counter sits a 1.5 gallon clear glass jug filled nearly to the top with the homemade granola I toasted yesterday. Every time I walk into the kitchen it makes me happy. A stupid thing really, that this jar of toasted oats and nuts fills me with joy, but these days I take joy where I can get it. None of my divorced friends warned me about this, how this second holiday season would be so much worse than the first. Maybe the second year blues aren’t a thing for everyone, but it has been a nightmare for me. Last year, everything was new and perhaps I’d steeled myself for a malaise that never materialized. As a result, this year I was unprepared for the unpredictable emotional roller coaster of loss, nostalgia, and joy I’ve ridden since mid-November.
Last fall once I decided to ask for the divorce, the universe pretty much heaved a huge sigh of relief and lay every sign and portent that this was the right decision at my feet, with ribbons attached. There have been struggles along the way, but without hesitation I can say that I am happier and did the right thing. Coming home each day to the animals and this house I rent in a town that I love, it balances pressures of this life: living alone, being responsible for everything. Yet, even as I embrace and relish my independence a part of me longs for a partner to share some of the burden. Reconciling what I had with what I want, who I was with who I am feels impossible. The joy and the longing so often go hand in hand and come from such unexpected directions.
Since about 1999, I’ve wanted to make my own granola. What I remember from that summer in Homer, is asking my Alaskan friend how she made her granola. Her answer was straight forward enough that neither she, nor I even tried to write it down. My life since that summer has been interesting, but definitely not straight forward. Periodically, I’ve thought about making my own granola, but there was always a reason not to, and over the years I forgot what my friend told me. Yes, I know there is an internet for these things. Most of my recipes are found that way; however, whenever I looked up a granola recipe it was this PROCESS that involved a million steps and ridiculous ingredients, nothing like what had been described to me. A part of me also just wanted my friend’s recipe, one I equated with good times, laughter, and my Pacific Northwest home. People everywhere make their own granola, but having grown up in Washington it feels like a quintessentially North-westerner thing to do. Doing something that so vividly represented my Northwest roots probably fueled my desire to give granola making a try.
This fall when a new friend revealed that they were from Oregon AND that their mom still made and sent them granola, I pretty much begged for the recipe.
“No way, too soon! It’s a family recipe. We’re barely friends, yet.” I was told.
“Okay. How long do we have to be friends before I am family?” I asked.
“Well, in my life, generally after 5 – 10 years one or the other of us has been through something major. We’ve been there for each other and become like family; or, we weren’t there for each other and have grown apart.” I explained.
Later, I joked. “I need a time-line. How long before I get the granola recipe?” It was about then they gave me a small container of the granola, and a printed copy of the recipe for Christmas. That friend doesn’t realize what a gift this actually was. I know, because frankly, I didn’t know what a gift it was. I was just excited to have a granola recipe much more quickly than I expected. Yesterday, I did my grocery shopping picked up all the ingredients I needed, and the container to keep it in, came home and began the assembly process. In no time at all, I had two sheets of granola toasting in the oven, while I went to work on my other, greater than I realized, gift of the year.
Moving back to North Carolina from Minnesota is one of this year’s events filled with struggles and joy. Getting rid of nearly everything I owned counts as a joy, because I entered this new life relatively free of the old one. Trying to replace everything counts as a struggle because it takes time, and in that time you still need things, like a desk or a kitchen table. My friends, who always see me through the struggles, helped with this one as well. A dear friend in Raleigh loaned me a desk and kitchen table, and every time I visit sends me home with something else they planned to donate. After the incident with my Christmas sock, when they offered this tree and a couple of sets of lights, I wasn’t sure.
As a single woman, struggling to get through this season, the last thing I thought I should do was buy decorations and put up a tree. I accepted it though, and then I bought the decorations. With the smell of granola toasting in the background, I put together the tree, strung the lights, and hung the decorations. Yes, I almost cried several times. They weren’t the tears of loss or longing I expected, though. In those long, hard years while my marriage crumbled, I’d forgotten the simple joy of putting up a tree, of hanging memories on the branches. Christmas music playing in the back ground, I nearly cried because I realized I missed decorating the tree. In a moment antithetical to everything in my Gen X heart, like the heroine of a Hallmark movie, I didn’t just miss decorating the tree as something I used to do; I knew it had to be a part of who I was now.
Finding my joy, the big and small moments of it, has been the true blessing of my divorce. Remembering the ease with which I could smile, laugh, and love, I found myself again during this last year. I learned to understand what I truly crave and what I don’t need, to know my strength and to accept my weaknesses. Looking in the mirror each morning, I am amazed at how much I can love myself and, at the same time, be so curious about what I have yet to learn and who I will become. The mirror reflects back to me who I am now, and I am re-shaping the woman so deeply scarred by my marriage.
Christmas trees, even artificial ones, can only stay up so long, and a single woman can only eat so much granola. For now though, this first batch, is about something bigger. It is about the way the smell drifted through the house as I hung decorations. This recipe comes from home, or close enough, and it is a connection between who I was and who I am becoming. The full jar on the counter is a visual and visceral representation of my Pacific Northwest roots. It brings to mind cabins in the woods, shelves full of mason jars of granola, herbs, and preserves, and living in time with the tides while being embraced by the mountains. It reminds me that I was a girl who explored, who risked, and who could rely on herself, even if it was just to make her own breakfast.
Yes, this holiday season has been hard. It has ripped me bare and it isn’t even New Year’s yet. Perhaps, by the time you read this, I will have made it through. Divorce is hard. Making a new life is hard. The holidays are hard for as many reasons as there are individuals. I wish I had answers for myself, or for you, but there is no magic. I just keep going, putting one foot in front of the other, stacking up one morning after the next. Some days, though, some days I get to sit in the glow of light from a Christmas tree and see the jar of granola on my counter, and these things make me smile. Once, as I lamented moving back to North Carolina not Washington where I could be closer to family, my little sister said, “At least in North Carolina you will be close to your friends-family.” She was right. Throughout this year my North Carolina friends-family carried me listening to me, helping me move, carrying on epic text conversations, getting me out of the house, and talking me off all my ledges. Only time will tell if my new friend becomes a part of that friends-family, but the granola that brings my Washington home into my North Carolina life is here to stay.