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“I wonder if it will be –can be– any more beautiful than this, ” murmured Anne, looking around her with the loving enraptured eyes of those to whom “home” must always be the loveliest spot in the world, no matter what fairer lands may lie under alien stars. ~LM Montgomery Anne of the Island
After a new friend tweeted about her Anne of Green Gables book club, I promptly bullied my way in … begged and pleaded might be more like it. Turns out I am joining the group for their discussion of the third book Anne of the Island. In this book Anne goes off to college to earn her B.A., and the themes of home and place figure prominently throughout. Given everything going on in my brain and life right now, me stumbling into this book club counts as inordinately perfect timing.
Yeah, I know who could think I’d have anything more to say about home and place, but are you really surprised? C’mon, we’re rapidly coming up to the one year anniversary of my latest cross-country move. The year’s been eventful, and a girl needs to do some processing.
**Note, I know I’ve been all sorts of vague about events this year. The thing is events are still unfolding, and much of what is happening isn’t necessarily mine to tell.
This post starts with a quotation about how some people have a home, a place to them that is always the loveliest spot in the world. I’ve written before about how much I envy people who have this clear connection and relationship to a place they call home. It is not something I typically carry with me. The most difficult question I typically get from people is “Where are you from?”
You’d think that question would have gotten a little easier this year. Yet, each time someone asked me I struggled. I was born here, but I moved when I was young, then I came back for undergrad, but I moved to go to grad school and was there for thirteen years, and now I’m back. Yeah, no one has time for all that. When I admit I have all these ties and connections to Minnesota, people just assume that I have moved home, that I have come back to that one place, the place I’m tied to. I mean, who wouldn’t want to come back here, right?
In some ways, I think they are right. All year, I’ve felt grounded in a way that I don’t typically. It’s not family, because I haven’t see that much more of them than I might have otherwise. It’s not the town, because I truly have never lived here before. There is, though, a familiarity here. My transition to this region, this town, this university it has been smooth. Smoother than many people could expect I’m sure. As my last post highlighted, I’ve made friends here. I’ve created a home for myself. For the most part, I even enjoy my work here.
Recently, I’ve had to do a lot of driving down to Minneapolis. When I am there, I miss Bemidji. I miss my house. It’s quiet, the deck, the yard. I miss the ease of getting around town, and the view of the lake I get every time I go anywhere. On the drive home there is also always this distinct moment when I feel like I have put the bulk of the journey behind me and crossed into home territory. For whatever reason, that moment comes when I crest the hill and drive down into Walker, MN. It’s like at that point my body says. “Yes, here we are in Northern Minnesota.” But, is this my home? I am still not sure.
Going to see my family in May heightened the tension for me. For the first time, I went back to the Harbor and felt like I didn’t want to leave. I could imagine myself back there. Yes, it was primarily the people. Being closer to my immediate family and old friends would be nice just now, but it was as always, the landscape too. There is something about the mix of mountains and ocean that is unique. Even on the Harbor where you are in between, without a direct view of either, the land envelops you. Often the only way I can describe it is feeling embraced. Since then, I’ve often daydreamed about what it would be like to move “home.” Even in my daydreams though, I’m not truly convinced the Harbor is my home.
As momentous as this past year has been, the upcoming academic year will be just as eventful. This is the final year of my two year contract and the university and I both have some decisions to make. Right now, I feel a lot like Anne when asked about life after college.
“And after those four years –what?”
” Oh, there’s another bend in the road at their end,” answered Anne lightly, “I’ve no idea what may be around it — I don’t want to have. It’s nicer not to know.” ~LM Montgomery Anne of the Island
This morning on the deck, as I started to re-read Anne of the Island, all of this kept swimming around my head. Where is my home? What is next? As I thought about all the places I’d been: where I might want to return, where I definitely would not, and what new places I’d like to try, I realized something.
Minnesota has always been a sort of chrysalis for me. A place where I spend time, where I am tested, grow and develop, but it is also a place I move out from. Certainly the choice to leave here as a child was not mine, but the coming back here for college, leaving for graduate school, and coming back here now, those are mine. No, this is not my declaration that I will leave here. It makes sense to me though, that in this time of change, in the midst of a year that feels like a crucible (sorry for the mixed metaphor), I feel both rooted here and restless. The trick in the next year will be to figure out how this year has changed me and how long I need/want to stay here.
I have never been much of a concert goer. Maybe it was because I didn’t see my first concert until I was 18. Maybe it is that I have to be in a very specific mood for crowds. These days it probably has something to do with how sensitive I am to loud things. I forget every time, but I always wish I had ear plugs at the movies.
The only band I have seen in concert more than once is Pearl Jam. They were my first concert, and it was amazing. They opened for Neil Young, which is great for when I want to sound more cool than I am. “Yeah, my first concert was Neil Young and Crazy Horse.” No one needs to know I barely knew who Neil Young was at that point. The second time I saw Pearl Jam at the Key Arena, and Sonic Youth opened up for them. Yeah, that doesn’t make me cool either. I sat through Sonic Youth. If I could go back though, I would pay a bit more attention. Actually, what I remember most from that Pearl Jam concert was that there was a small group of people off on the side of the stage. One girl had the most awesome hair. It was dark like mine, but there was an amazing band of red at the front. That has been the hair I’ve wanted all my life.
Once before I took the plunge and did it. Before you think this is no big deal, please keep in mind that when you have naturally dark hair, getting color into it isn’t easy. It requires several processes, and is definitely not something you do by yourself at home. Several processes typically mean several dollars, however, so this hair remained a dream for a long time.
Well, until last Wednesday when I did it again. Am I too old for this nonsense, probably, but take a good look. This is my hair. This simple cut, with this hint of color. I love it. It is me. It’s not the best picture because our lighting isn’t great, but it is the only one I will have for a while.
I didn’t set out for this to be a year of saying yes to everything that scares me, but I have intentionally, unintentionally, and somewhat haphazardly taken some big and small risks this year. Since I spent last week, as Dr. Brene Brown describes it using the Franklin Delano Roosevelt quotation, face down in the arena, I’ve spent this week trying to take stock, figure out what got me there, and how to get back up. Fortunately for me, the universe sent along a few reminders.
Though I find the “just get through it” mentality generally serves me well. One of the downfalls of this mentality is that sometimes I get so busy “getting through it” that the things I need to process, and actually deal with, tend to stack up.
As someone surrounded by friends and family who face daunting struggles with depression, I consider myself blessed that my own bouts of depression tend to be short-lived, and in some ways purposeful. Sometimes it takes me a while to figure it out, but generally if I am feeling depressed it is a sign that in “just getting through” stuff, I’ve also let things pile up. So, last week when I reached a particularly low point, I knew that part of the process of getting back up would have to be taking stock of things and figuring out how to deal with them.
Please, don’t run screaming, this is not going to be a post where I give you a three step process for solving all my (and/or your) problems. This post is more about identifying the things, taking risks, and their rewards. If you want to run screaming from that, well, now is the time; and, it won’t hurt my feelings if you do.
For me, getting through things often means narrowing my focus and concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. This a great strategy for the day to day, for things like being fully back in the class room for the first time in five years, or for immersing myself in a sub-field I’ve only dabbled in before, or for re-adapting to life in a smaller, more isolated community. The problem with this narrow focus is it means that when I do stumble I lack the perspective to help me recover. Since I have always managed the day to day stuff fairly successfully, it is natural for me to be hard on myself when I start not coping well with the day to day.
I did all of that to take a job I’d applied for in April, and interviewed at in May. A job that carries a similar title and some similar day to day work, but that in reality has vastly different expectations. Basically in about 8 months I changed nearly everything about my day to day life. Yet, my day to day, get through it, coping strategy doesn’t really account for that. Basically, it tells me, “You did this to yourself. Now, suck it up and get going.”
As my last post revealed, it is hard enough for me to admit I miss the people and community I had, I haven’t even started to think about how I miss my standing desk and dual monitor set up, the window in my office, the restaurants I could walk to for lunch. All of those things I know are affecting me physically and emotionally, yet I’m not taking the time to consider them. Really, I am actively berating myself for not dealing better. (Yeah, I know … that is some logic there.) As silly as it sounds, this week I’ve been thinking about / accepting that this move, this new job, this new life they all constitute a very big risk I have taken. Funny, it wasn’t until last week when I felt completely flat on my face that I realized I was even in the arena in a very big way.
Actually, it was a combination of feeling completely defeated, and taking smaller risks that helped me to better accept the big risk I have taken, and to be kinder to myself in this struggle. Last week, I sent a draft of an article to a colleague at another institution. It doesn’t sound like much of a risk, but this is the first time I’ve shared my work outside of my friends and graduate school co-hort. (No, the dissertation does not count, and why is a different discussion.) This colleague graduated from a more prestigious university than I did. She is insanely smart, and I feel like I work to keep up with her in conversation. Though I knew it would ultimately help me, I worried about sharing this not quite first draft with her. It felt like showing my warts. I was worried she would tear my work apart, and that she would be right in doing so. Of course, I didn’t share any of this with her, so today when I received her feedback it felt like a gift. She praised and loved parts of my article, and she gave me wonderful feedback and tips on the other parts … the parts I knew needed more attention. My reward for this risk isn’t the praise an positive feedback she gave; my reward is that she pushed in all the places I knew I needed pushing. She confirmed my own instincts about my writing. Right now, for me, this is a win, and a small risk that I hope will lead to bigger ones.
This is getting long, I know, but just one more thing. The other risk I took this week is having my faculty mentor, who is from the professional education department, observe my class. Being back in the classroom this year has left me all kinds of vulnerable, but this last couple of weeks I have really been feeling it. Listening to other people in the department talk about their composition classes, it’s become clear to me that I have a very different pedagogy, and structure my class quite differently. The most obvious way I have done that is by making my class read, think, and talk about race. (I did mention that I moved North of North, right?) Since they are all working on their own topics and projects, we needed an example to talk about in class, so I structured a series of readings focused on race in America, which started with whiteness and ended with Rachel Dolezal.
Whenever I talked about the readings and discussions our class was participating in, my colleagues would talk about how brave I was, or seem incredulous that I would bring these issues up with my class. There were conversations that were a struggle, but, for me, it all paid off as I listened to this class talk about Ta-Nehisi Coates The Case for Reparations. (Yes, they read it, and yes they owned the discussion.) The reactions of my colleagues began to have an effect though. I worried, was I forcing my view on them. I’d done my best in class not to impose my opinions, but, given my authority in the classroom, even bringing up this issue could be considered imposing it on the students. I also worried if I’d gotten too far into the readings / discussion, and neglected the writing. Last week, in a meeting before class one of the students thanked me for making them think about and talk about race. I won’t lie, that made me feel good.
Last night, when I was talking with my mentor about the class she shared two things. First, the class said they enjoyed that I was making them talk about hard issues. (The student who’d thanked me last week was absent, so this was coming spontaneously from other students in the class.) Second, the feed back she and the class gave me about where class / my teaching could improve, confirmed what I’d already been thinking. Again, that the class didn’t hate me for making them wrestle with a difficult issue, was important good feedback. More important for me though, was the confirmation that what I suspected needed work was also what they felt needed work. It was another confirmation that the risk was worth it, and of my own instincts.
Yes, I took these small risks, and in doing so I learned I am not the perfect writer or the perfect teacher. I also learned, however, to trust my own instincts about how to become better at both. I can also hope that the positive results of these smaller risks are good omens for the much bigger risk I have taken with this move. I am definitely not comfortable right now, so I guess the least I can do is be courageous.
When I was 9, my dad built a trailer to pull behind our red Malibu classic station wagon. We crammed it and the car full, leaving just enough space for my little brother’s car seat to sit in the middle of the back seat and me next to him. I don’t remember much about that move, because I slept through much of it. My strongest memory of that trip is the afternoon stop for coffee. Wherever we were I would always order the cherry pie. The end result of that trip was our eventual move to Aberdeen, Wa.
For the next thirteen years, if anyone asked me where I was from my first answer was always Minnesota. My logic was that I was born there, and all my extended family was there: my aunts and uncles, older and younger cousins. When I met my cousin for lunch the other day, she reminded me of something else. Apparently, I also used to constantly talk about moving back to Minnesota. Someday I would live here again. Though I don’t remember talking about this in particular, I don’t doubt it is true. Well, after thirty-two years, I have apparently gotten my wish.
As with most wishes this is good and bad.
Now that I am ostensibly “home.” I feel less at home, and more homesick, than I have in a long time. The gift of not having strong ties to particular physical space is that I can general make any place I am feel like home. The problem with this is that my definitions of home are often tied to particular groups of people.
So, while I don’t miss the job, the humidity, the struggles I faced, the decrepit house we lived in, I do miss my Southern friends, my Southern family. Though many of my grad school friends have moved on to their careers other places, the most important were just an hours drive away. My work friends, who I never saw enough of, the most important of whom I could have worked with again this year. My Durham friends, who I saw even less of, but who had just moved less than a mile away. Though not ideal in so many ways, my Durham life had just coalesced in important ways; yet, between May and July I blew it apart.
Certainly missing my friends isn’t the only thing making me feel less than at home in my new location, but it is probably the most obvious and least complicated.
When I accepted this job, the DH and I had some idea of what we were getting into. After all, we both spent some time growing up here and met at a college in southern Minnesota. Neither of us were surprised things started getting cold at the end of September; certainly, we weren’t happy about it, but we remembered enough to expect it. What we had forgotten, however, was one of the best things about fall in the North. The unexpectedly warm up. After a couple of weeks with highs barely in the 60s, grey skies, and occasional freeze warnings.
We’ve been blessed with a gorgeous, sunny, 80 degree weekend. Granted my ability to appreciate this weekend has been somewhat limited. My head really hates these kinds of sudden changes in the weather, and lets me know that with terrible headaches. Whenever the Advil kicks in, though, I have made it a point to get outside to do something. I mowed the lawn one last time, and played some catch with Bradley. Anything I could do to enjoy this reprieve from the cold, dark winter I know is coming. Yes. I said it. Winter is coming.
It wasn’t until last night, when the tightness in my neck and shoulder returned after dinner, that a different reprieve ended. I remembered: how I’d been sick at the beginning of the semester, how I’d been sneezing frequently and with a lot of force for the last week; how I have been pretty stressed about my new job; how all of those things are slightly different, but very much the same way I’d been feeling seven years ago. As those things dawned on me, I realized the date, and that for the first time I’d completely forgotten Stroke Day.
Seven years ago, on October 4th, I suffered an stroke, specifically an arterial dissection in an artery on the right side of my neck. I was just 35, so it surprised everyone from my family to the doctors, who took 13 hours to diagnose me. To this day no one really knows what caused it. Since then, I have always found a way to “celebrate” stroke day. Nothing big, so maybe commemorate is a better word than celebrate. This is the first year that Stroke Day passed completely unnoticed by me, until I started thinking about my headache that is.
That I could forget Stroke Day this year is remarkable, since a good friend of mine, who suffered a brain aneurysm has spent the month blogging about her story and preparing for a fundraising 5k. I have, for reasons you can probably imagine, avoided reading Niki’s story. Seeing her posts promoted on Facebook and her race photos, however, probably should have put Stroke Day on my radar. Once I remembered however, I had to work pretty hard not to worry excessively about my headache.
Having a stroke, learning to walk again, writing and teaching again for the first time, those are things that you don’t really forget. More importantly, they are things your friends and family do not easily forget. One thing I have always maintained is that my friends and family were much more deeply scarred by my stroke than I was. I couldn’t see myself getting a spinal tap in the ER; in and out of consciousness in intensive care. The doctors weren’t tell me all the worst case scenarios possible: I would never wake up, never walk, never be the same. When I finally “woke up,” and began my recovery, I felt normal. Yes, I had obstacles and things to do, but I dealt with them the same way I do everything, I just did it. (One foot in front of the other, remember.) I couldn’t see the differences in my personality, in the way I moved. One result of this has been that I am typically able to worry much less about my health. Maybe a better way to describe it is that I am able to treat my health much more normally than my friends and family. For me a cough is just a cough, and a pain is just a pain.
For a long time, every sneeze, cough, or mention of pain meant the DH would ask, “Are you okay?” in a particular tone, then hover over me until I was back to normal. Intellectually, I understood his concern; emotionally, it was stifling and felt like I could never fully recover until everyone would start treating me normally. For the longest time, I just refused to talk about my health. If I had a headache, I took some Advil and Tylenol and did my best not to mention it. My reprieve, my ability to forget stroke day, and then my realization in conjunction with my headache, actually helped me to understand the DH’s worry a little better. I knew my headache was just a headache, but once memories of the stroke began it was almost impossible to get them to stop.
My friend Niki, who made it through her brain aneurysm, talks a lot about celebrating her “Life Day,” the day she had her successful operation. I think she like, a lot of people, sees my insistence on remembering Stroke Day as somewhat morbid and negative. I don’t see it that way at all. Remembering Stroke Day, or this year forgetting it, for me is about recognizing my own vulnerability, recognizing my ability to get up and keep going, and recognizing the strength of everyone who went through that experience with me.
Well, that didn’t take long.
I have been at my new job for just over a month, and already I feel a little like I am struggling to keep up, and swimming in self-doubt. Intellectually, I know that is just a function of the new job territory. As usual, though, knowing it doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to live through.
Moshe usually does a pretty good job of helping me live through it. He is generally pretty attentive to our moods, and is a wonderful snuggler.
My to-do list, which I know is currently no more than it was at my last job, feels overwhelming. Consequently, I have spent the last week beating up myself up for not getting enough done, while I find ways to keep myself from doing the things that would make me feel like I had accomplished something. Yes, feeling overwhelmed makes me less productive instead of more productive. We all have our silly ways of making ourselves miserable, and this is mine.
Typically, this is about the time in every semester, when I go through something like this. This time just feels bigger than normal, because I am also feeling the pressure to prove myself at my new job, to adapt to life in a new region, a much smaller town, and to support the DH as he tries to do the same and look for a new job. Do I have a conclusion for all this? Not really, the only thing I know to do is what I do all the time. Just get through it.
I know this is something that many people go through when they take a new academic job. I would guess also that people working other places go through it too. There is always a point in the first year when the reality of a new job starts to wear away the shine on the possibilities of the new job, and that is why I wish I could say, “I did these five things, and it helped me through this funk.” The reality though is that I don’t have anything better than I just get through it because I have to. Sure, I have tactics to help me get back on track, but mostly they just involve tricking myself, and faking it until I make it.
The primary way I trick myself is by abandoning my To-Do list in favor of recording things on my Emergent Task Planner. It helps me focus on what I got done instead of what I thought I should get done. Usually, this tactic allows me to feel a little less overwhelmed, which helps me ease back into a productivity that I am comfortable with.
Last week, after packing up the house and putting everything on a trailer, we loaded up the animals and said good bye to North Carolina. After three days on the road, we were back in Minnesota and ready to spend a weekend with the In-Laws. Sunday morning we re-loaded the animals for one last four hour car ride, and headed even farther north to our new home in Bemidji.
It has been a long time since the DH and I lived in Minnesota, even longer since either of us lived this far north. We both have a healthy fear of what this winter will bring, but for now I am basking in the blue of the sky up here.
In June I accepted a position at Bemidji State University, and in just ten days I will start there as an Assistant Professor of English/Writing Center Director. It was a little sad to leave NC State when most of the consultants were off for the summer, but I am excited about this new opportunity.
What I am not excited about just now is the state of my life, which greatly resembles the state of our house.
At least everything is finally set up enough that I can write. Each morning I come into the downstairs office to work on my syllabi. Each morning I have my breakfast and coffee with Ceasescu’s new squirrel friend. (Look past Ceausescu and you can just seem him.)
Squirrels are noisy eaters, by the way.
All the animals have acclimated pretty well. The dogs had a long day Tuesday when we unloaded the truck, and the cable guy came to the house. They were quiet in their crates, but shaking and nervous the whole time. They all seem to love the extra space in this house though, and the yard. The dogs LOVE the yard, lots of space to run around in. The DH thinks they know this is home now, but I am not so sure. I think they are waiting for us to pick them up and put them in the car for another three days.
Maybe I am just projecting my own disbelief and wariness onto the animals. Yes, I left NC State and moved, but I haven’t started the new job yet. It makes everything feel a little unreal and tenuous.