Showing posts with label beginning. Show all posts
Showing posts with label beginning. Show all posts

Thursday, May 4, 2017

guessing wrong

Turning thirty-five felt like a major milestone. I had only just been widowed, and it felt like I had lived the events of an entire lifetime in but half of my threescore and ten. I felt like I had done everything, and I wasn't sure what was left.

And then I realized that I had the opportunity to make all the choices of adulthood anew. To begin again.

In some ways this has been incredibly frightening. When I made these decisions the first time, I had only myself to think about. Now, I am responsible for children and pets and debt and an estate. Now, I have lost my sense of invincibility.

The privilege of being the spouse who lived carries with it a burden to get things right, an irrational sense that choosing wrong dishonors the dead. (Reader, I can hear the platitude you're thinking. Just stop. Do not type it in the comments.) The irrationality does not make the burden any less real.

In a post in January Mike at Internet Monk meditated on a brief passage from Thomas Merton that has been rolling around in my head since then:
Our vocation is not a sphinx’s riddle, which we must solve in one guess or else perish. Some people find, in the end, that they have made many wrong guesses and that their paradoxical vocation is to go through life guessing wrong. It takes them a long time to find out that they are happier that way.
As I make decisions for my second life, the roads not taken in my first life have loomed large. Should I have chosen them then? Are they still available to me? Should I choose them now? What if I choose wrong again?

And yet, the vaporizing of my old life that came with widowhood, the instantaneous disappearance of my marriage, the release of the moorings that held me at Rambling Farmhouse showed me that any decision I make can be unmade by circumstance. Even decisions that felt permanent when I made them have been undone, and that undoing did not ruin me.

As I make decisions now, I might guess wrong.

I might choose wrong, and that's okay.

Even decisions that are wrong, even decisions that are right and then are undone, are worthwhile.

I can go through life guessing wrong, and knowing that even permanent decisions are not actually, and still be happy.



Sunday, January 29, 2017

birthdays

I love birthdays. I love my birthday. I love everyone else's birthdays. I especially love birthdays in the era of social media.

Facebook is the best thing to happen to birthdays since cake.

I know that not everyone agrees with me. At least one friend probably wishes that I would stop remembering the birthday he chooses not to mark publicly.

I just can't let go of the idea that birthdays are an amazing thing, though, so I selfishly celebrate everyone else's birthdays as well as my own.

A birthday is the day that commemorates the fact that someone wasn't, until suddenly they were.  Birthdays commemorate magic! (while I concede that technically birth is biology, I maintain that it actually is magic)

A birthday is also the day that celebrates successfully having completed one more trip around the sun, three hundred and sixty five more days above the soil. This is also a feat worth noticing.

Over twelve years I had gotten used to receiving a dozen roses on my birthday. I'd missed them these last three.

This year, I decided to treat myself.


Almost, I cried in the flower shop. Instead, I cried in the car in the parking lot of my building. Buying flowers for my own birthday did not used to be my job.

It is now.

It is magic that I am here. Today is the day I remember that once upon a time I wasn't, until suddenly I was. Today is the day I thank God for the privilege of waking up to put my feet on the ground.

Happy Birthday to Me!

Friday, August 26, 2016

finding the joy

I've been having a bit of a freakout this summer.

On paper, my career is moving in a good direction: I submitted an article to an academic journal and am now revising in response to reviewer comments. That same journal asked me to review someone else's submission. I accepted a postdoctoral teaching fellowship at a denominational liberal arts college. All positive signs of my professional development.

Although I've been celebrating my new full-time teaching fellowship with cheers and champagne and flaily muppet arms, I couldn't find the joy. I felt relief as this job lifts the burden of worry about finances, I felt gratitude for the recognition of my skills, but not joy for the work itself.

And then I felt guilty for not feeling joy. I love teaching. This job should have put me over the moon. Where was the joy?!?!?!?

Then, I had a disturbing epiphany. The last time I started to feel like a professional who was being taken seriously, the last time I had made my career a priority, tragedy exploded my life. The last time I allowed myself to believe these things were real and that I deserved them, I had to give them up. The circumstances--signing contracts, planning research, settling in to my own space--feel familiar.  I'm having trouble trusting this reality again. My lack of joy is like a Pavlovian conditioned response: professional security will be followed by darkness and turmoil, so prepare thyself.

Since I've been able to see the dynamics at play, they've had less power. My full-on freakout has subsided to the normal stage fright I have at the beginning of every semester.

And today, there was even some joy. At this university, the faculty dress for convocation. Since I didn't march in my doctoral commencement, today was the first day I got to wear a hood and tam.



It felt pretty amazing.


Saturday, July 30, 2016

audacity

A little over three years ago, people started telling me I was brave. For a long time, this label made me deeply uncomfortable. But people just. kept. saying it, and I got tired of debating my (lack of) bravery.

First I practiced not arguing with the people who told me I was brave. When I had mastered that, I practiced not physically recoiling from the word. And when I had finally mastered that, I started thinking about what they might see that I did not.

Because, really, from my perspective, I have not done anything brave or, for that matter, anything strong. First I did the next necessary things. Then I did the next logical things. Then I did the next possible things.

In a fit of nostalgia this evening, I was watching the 2001 romantic comedy Kate and Leopold, and Hugh Jackman's character told Meg Ryan's character that
The brave are simply those with the clearest vision of what is before them--glory and danger alike--and notwithstanding go out to meet it.
It's a beautiful definition, but it certainly doesn't apply to me. While I have continued to act despite fear, I wouldn't say that I've ever had a clear vision.

Recently accepting a postdoctoral teaching fellowship, a full-time contract position with salary and benefits, was such a joy. I was walking down the sidewalk that afternoon, grinning like a fool, and feeling validated, not only by the job offer but also by recent progress in academic publication.

A little over a year ago I was an unemployed graduate student whose life was in boxes, and now I'm a post-doctoral teaching fellow with one article forthcoming and another under review.

A little over a year ago I was an unemployed graduate student whose life was in boxes...and I moved my family halfway across the country? Without a job? What the fuck was I thinking?

This last year could have gone much, much differently. All along, I had had a vague sense that things might not work out, and I made sure that there was enough cash in my emergency fund to drag my life back to Kalamazoo if necessary, but I did not have a clear vision of the dangers until this moment in which I finally feel safe.

I only ever see my own audacity in hindsight.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

three

In general, I don't think that deathdays should be marked. I would rather celebrate my dearly departeds on their birthdays. Today, though, is demanding my attention.

There's something different about three. One felt light. I had a sense of relief at having gotten through an entire cycle of holidays and birthdays and seasons. Three feels heavy.

Maybe three feels heavy because my life is so different now. I've made a different set of choices for myself and the children than we had made as a married couple. To live in an apartment. To live in this city. To build a career.

I've been thinking about the final poem in Lorca's Lament this month "Alma Ausente."

4. Absent Soul

The bull does not know you, nor the fig tree, 
nor the horses, nor the ants in your own house.
The child and the afternoon do not know you
because you have died forever.

The back of the stone does not know you,
nor the black satin in which you crumble.
Your silent memory does not know you
because you have died forever. 

I could add a verse:

The cat does not know you, nor the rabbit
nor the plants bearing fruit on the balcony. 
The walls of this home do not know you
because you have died forever. 

The heaviest thing right now is the tension between my sadness and my happiness. I am profoundly sad. I am sad that Adam died in the prime of life. I am sad that the life we had planned is gone. I am sad that I am lonely without a partner. I carry these sadnesses in my bones. Yet, at the same time, I am  joyfully happy. I am happy to be wresting with my research and building a career. I am happy to be here, in the city, on the coast. I am happy with my sit-com life

Happy and sad at the same time is a jarring dissonance. I am not alone, though. In church this morning, Psalm 77 gave equal weight to lamentation and praise, and I was reminded of the early days three years ago when my prayer life contracted to the words: Help, Thanks, Wow. There were many nights when my cries for help were accompanied by exclamations of thanks and wonder.

Maybe three feels heavy because I don't know what comes next. The next three years could hold as much change as the last. I only know that I am happy, and I am sad.


Wednesday, April 13, 2016

on the way

I haven't written to you in a while, and I've missed you.

It's not that I've had nothing to say. I have so much to say--too much, perhaps--and I've lost my voice.

That's not true. I know exactly where my voice is. It's stopped up in a jam of ideas right behind my sternum, and sometimes it aches. Sometimes I open my mouth to sing and there is no air. I've held my fingers over the keyboard in front of this blank screen countless times.

That's also not true. More often, I think about writing, and the picture of the blank screen in my mind's eye is so daunting that I don't even open this program. My fingers don't even get the chance.

I have an article to finish and a sermon to write from scratch by the end of the month, though. Something has to move. Something has to ease past the aching jam of ideas.

So, let me tell you about my commute.

Twice a week, I sit down on a train for a short ride into the District. Always, there is something in my hands--usually knitting, occasionally prayer beads. The metro in this city is not beautiful, and I don't need to pay attention in order to get where I'm going.

But between my start and my stop, the yellow line briefly emerges from below to cross the Potomac. Even though I know it is coming, the burst of light always grabs my attention. My fingers stop moving. I look up: trees...fence...bridges...river...monuments:

If, as Steven Prothero writes in The American Bible, the Declaration and the Constitution are, among other documents, the scripture of our civic religion, these monuments are our temple. These places where we go to remember our collective greatness and mourn our collective flaws help to maintain American community. 

And I get to visit them as often as I want. In fact, twice a day, two days a week, I see them as a matter of course. 

The view is always brief. If the train is packed, I may see only river, or only the heads and shoulders of other commuters. Nonetheless, that brief moment before the yellow line descends is a moment of wonder, a brief stillness in the mind while the body is in motion. 

There's something else to say, something about the river, but that idea remains stuck.

Let's hope that this idea has eased the jam, and I will write to you further anon.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

a glimpse of community in the city

A little over two years ago, already knowing that I would be leaving my life in Michigan to start again elsewhere, I posted a glimpse of community in winter.

Today was a day a lot like that day: crisp and clear and snowy-but-not-snowing.



As we skied through the neighborhood, we chatted with other folks out enjoying the snow and starting the cleanup.



And then we met up with a hundred or so neighbors and had a snowball fight on Penrose Square.



Most of the people there are people I don't know, of course. At first, it's a bit odd to play in the snow with strangers. And then you (I) relax, and it starts to be fun.  

And then, I saw all these people that I do know!



All of these beautiful people also walked to Penrose Square for the snowball fight today because all these people live (or had Snowzilla sleepovers) close enough to Penrose Square to walk. How amazing is that? Even when driving is impossible, all these people I love are close enough to get together. That's pretty amazing.

The isolation of the property on which Rambling Farmhouse and Rustic Lakehouse sat was one of its positive features for Adam. He wanted to have land that was his, space that he could use however he wanted, whenever wanted. I'll admit that it was nice to be able to host large gatherings like a wedding or an apple butter production party in our own back yard, but it was also isolating. Visitors were generally a plan and a commitment. 

While I do miss having acres of skiing and skating right outside my door, I like not being responsible for land on my own. I like sharing my green space with other people. I like that looking up from the shovel to chat with me on my skis made strangers smile this morning. I like working together to shovel out our cars in the parking lot of my building. I especially like that on the way home from this neighborhood snowball fight, we stopped at the neighborhood grocery store. On foot. 

My community looks different now than it did at the end of 2013, and I miss the faces in that other post like whoa. This new community is pretty amazing, too, though. 

Friday, January 1, 2016

listen

The turn of the year is always a time for taking stock. The long break between academic semesters makes space for all the thinking I've been avoiding to assert itself in the forefront of my mind.

As I've been reading job ads and assembling application materials over the last couple of weeks, I've felt pretty disheartened about my work this year. My CV is glaringly unchanged over the last twelve months. Having finally finished my PhD helps on the job market, but I still don't have the publication record that would help me compete with the real job candidates. I feel a bit like Pinocchio or the Velveteen Rabbit--almost there, still not real.

At the same time, I did accomplish a lot of things in my personal life, most critically finally defeating the hydra of my late husband's estate: all the real estate, all the vehicles, all the financial accounts. Done and dusted.

And then I moved our household from middle to coast with minimal disruption to the children's academic and athletic lives. I deserve a medal for the level of normalcy I maintained for the children through this process.

In pursuit of those accomplishments, though, I became a person I don't like. In some ways self-centeredness was necessary. I could not have finalized the estate and finished my degree and moved the household if I had also volunteered for school and civic organizations as I had previously. I needed that hyper-focus in order to begin again.

The weekend after Thanksgiving, though, I sat down to make a list of the loved ones I wanted to give gifts to at Christmas. This is usually an activity I enjoy because giving gifts is wonderful, but I made the list of names and then realized I had no idea what to make or find for any of them. No idea. Not for my kids, not for my mother, not for my best friend. No understanding of what my beloveds need this year or what would bring smiles to their faces.

I forgot to listen.

Beloveds, I apologize if I have been less than the friend you needed. I am so sorry if I've pushed you to be more than the friend you wanted to be. I am ashamed of having failed to show you that I value you. Please forgive my selfishness.

In the new year, I am resolved to be more present with you, beloveds. This year, I will listen.




Monday, December 7, 2015

promise



Once upon a time, we made each other promises: to love, to honor, to cherish until death would us part.

We kept those promises in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, joyfully and grudgingly, even when it was phenomenally difficult.

And then, one day, death did us part. And the terms of our promises were fulfilled.

My choices have reshaped my life into one unlike the one we chose together, but I make you new promises:

I promise to have your picture in the house where your children can see it.

I promise to use the things you created until they weather with age.

I promise to tell your stories, but I promise to tell all of them because I promise not to turn you into a saint.

I promise to learn from our mistakes.

I promise to remember.

I promise not to wallow.

I promise to honor your contribution to my happily ever after.

Friday, November 27, 2015

begin again

Over the course of the last two-and-half years, I've talked a lot about inhabiting the liminal space between end and beginning, and recently a beautiful drawing captured this so well:

I can hardly believe I'm putting a Mitch Albom quote on this blog,
but I couldn't resist the artwork by Mike Medaglia at http://mikemedaglia.com

The King James translation of Psalm 90 tells us that the alotted time of a human life is threescore years and ten. I feel like in half that time, I have lived an entire life.

My thirty-six years have arguably checked all the major boxes: childhood, youth, college, marriage, homeownership, babies, graduate school, widowhood. I have loved and birthed and buried and mourned.

The vision that I had for what my threescore and ten would look like died with Adam. That was a frightening, almost paralyzing, realization.

But as I learned to make my way through the dark wilderness, I realized that it was also liberating.

I get to choose a new life.

I get to make all the decisions of early adulthood over again: Where do I want to live? City or country? What kind of partner do I want? Do I even want a partner?  Do I want more children? Do I want to stay in academia? Is it the right place for me? Is it the best way to support my family? What other job would feed my soul?

I can choose differently than the last time I answered those questions. I get to reimagine the second half of my threescore and ten.

Some of those decisions are still under consideration; others have been made; some of the latter may yet change.

Selling Rambling Farmhouse and Rustic Lakehouse and moving several hundred miles to Lovely Apartment felt like the beginning of beginning. Having said good-bye to our cat Jack feels like the end of ending, the end of the season of leave-taking that began with #1 Cat's death just a month before Adam's. Although I know that there will always be periods of loss and grief in my life as long as there is love, at the moment, the light of hope is gaining on the darkness.

This is a good place to be at the beginning of Advent.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

labyrinth

I used to see life as path opening up ahead of me, sometimes winding and hilly, mostly direct. Occasionally, there would be moments in which I was aware of standing at a fork in the road, when I had to choose between two things with the consciousness that choosing one likely meant giving up the other forever. As when reading a which-way book, I was only able to see the decision right in front of me. In this model, the unchosen paths sometimes branched off sharply and disappeared from view and other times wound their own way nearby, still visible but not accessible.

Lately I've been thinking that life is more like a labyrinth, in which there is one path, but it is folded neatly around itself so that from any point, one can see the whole pattern.



The first time I set foot in a labyrinth, I fell in love. We were camping,* and my friend Karen looked at her husband Mike and said, "You know what we haven't done in forever?" No, love. What? "Made a labyrinth." You're right! I'll pick up ten pounds of flour when I go to town.

When Mike came back with the flour, they first defined critical points in the pattern and then started drawing curving lines from point to point. Even as I helped lay the lines, I had no understanding of  what we were creating. As the flour ran out, Karen declared the labyrinth complete.

"Now what?" I asked.

"Start here," Karen positioned me at the open space in the edge of the large circle full of lines. "Just walk. Keep going forward without crossing the lines. When you get to the center turn around and come back."

"But I'm not very good at mazes."

"It's not a maze. You don't have to make any choices, just follow the path. People have been doing this for millennia."

"But why?"

"You'll see."

She was right.

Since then, I've taken advantage of the few labyrinths that have appeared at my feet, and walking a labyrinth is always a profound experience. Not long ago, I was struggling to explain the experience of meditatively walking a labyrinth to Lou, so today I walked twice, once with a camera.



Even though I know what to expect, I'm always nervous to take the first step. It is a step over a boundary from the everyday to the sacred.


There is no wall stopping me from walking straight to the center. Taking this first curve in the path marks the choice to be obedient to the structure of the labyrinth.


I have to remind myself that getting straight to the center isn't the point, and yet early on the path winds close to the center, as if to give me a glimpse of where we are going.



And then, the path swings out to the outer edge of the labyrinth, and I feel so far away. Because even though I know that it's all about the journey, I still think of the center as the goal.


And then the path and I are back by my shoes at the entrance. Why are we back by my shoes?


So. Close.


Finally. Arrived.
On my second walk, sans camera, I sat down here and wept. I can't even say why. I sat down on the beautiful concentric cobbles, and there were tears. And when they were done, I stood up.


 Here beginneth the return. This is where I get cocky, thinking, I have walked all the inches of this path, I know you now, labyrinth. 



And I walk faster, and then, the path folds where I expected it to sweep.


Sometimes the folds of the path turn me in such a way that I can see neither the center nor the start. It's okay, though, because I know all the curves and sweeps of the path fit between those two points.


Look, path! We're almost there. So close to my shoes! 
I'm beginning to think that some of those unchosen choices from my past are more like this moment in which I can see something that I have not yet gotten to, something the path and I will reach later.


Oh. Just one more turn. Why are you done, path? I'm not ready.






__________________________________

*This camping trip was probably ten years ago, so all conversations are the paraphrase that survives in my memory.

This labyrinth is on the grounds of the Advent Lutheran Church in Arlington, Virginia, and I found it through the Labyrinth Locator.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

free at last

Over the last two years, I've written a lot about inhabiting the wilderness between end and beginning. Moving halfway across the country a month ago was a huge step toward exiting that liminal space.

The more momentous occurrence of the last thirty days, however, was the official closure of my late husband's estate.

This most recent letter from the probate court is the matched pair of the first letter designating me as the personal representative of the estate. It puts a seal on all of the official actions I have taken to dissolve his corporation, sell his real estate and his vehicles, and distribute his investments among his heirs.

That unchosen responsibility was a too-large yoke on my shoulders, and I resented it.

This most recent letter marks the end of my legal responsibility for my late husband's affairs and effects. Now, my only obligation to Adam is to maintain his presence in the lives of his children, a yoke which I will gladly bear.

I feel so free.

Happy Independence Day!

Friday, June 26, 2015

pinch me

Sometimes when I walk past the door inside the apartment, I forget that I'm in an apartment. The stack of locks and the light from the hallway peeking around the edges are somehow coded not-home.  More than once, I've caught my mind whispering, 'Gosh, we've been in this hotel for a long time,' like the ghost of a thought that almost isn't.

And yet, all my things are here.



All my books, all my yarn, my cello, my photos, my spinning wheel, my dishes, my broom, my tax paperwork for the last ten years, my clothes, my bedding, my bills, my teapots, my computer.

All of it.

Here.

In the place I picked.

Sometimes it feels so very right, and sometimes it feels unreal.

Like playing house.



Sometimes the sky is too beautiful for words.



And I feel so blessed to have found this apartment in this building on this floor on this side.

The Netherlands Carillon and the bugle calls at Fort Myer make an unexpected and pleasant counterpoint to the urban din of quotidian traffic and emergency sirens.

Yet, even as high as we are on the eighth floor, the overwhelming sound throughout the day is the birds who make their homes in the trees that reach higher than my windows.

I definitely didn't expect the birds.

Someone pinch me.

Please.

Friday, April 24, 2015

a glimpse of blustery

I did some hiking in Michigan recently. 


It was a beautifully blustery day. 


The kind of day where the clouds roll around and the dry grass sussurates.


It was a day between winter and spring.



Saturday, April 18, 2015

a glimpse of beginning

and there was morning

   

 and there was evening

   

 on the first day

Monday, March 30, 2015

uncertainty and the purple

Lou says that uncertainty is a good thing, that it challenges you and teaches you things about life. I can grudgingly agree that Lou is right, but I would add that a little bit of uncertainty goes a long way.

Lately, uncertainty has dominated all areas of my life: sale of Rustic Lakehouse, finalization of Adam's estate, transfer of our wordily possession to our next home, a place to live while the girls finish the school year, when my dissertation will be ready for defense, when my committee will be able to convene, job(s).

In some cases, the events are certain, but the timeline is not. The current buyer definitely wants Rustic Lakehouse, and I want to sell it to him, but he and I don't get to agree on a day ourselves. We have to wait for his bank to work their underwriting magic and assign us a date. My moving company has agreed on a day to come load the truck, but only offered a delivery window for unloading at our destination.

This storm of uncertainly feels a lot like the dark wilderness of instant widowhood with one major difference: this time, I put myself here. Each of these uncertainties is the result of a choice that I made. I did this to myself.

Sometimes I wonder what I could have been thinking.

But the one thing that I was certain about when I started making these decisions is that I can not stay here. Staying put feels like stagnating.

A little over a year ago I wrote about the importance of dwelling in the purple times of the Christian year. Always for me embracing the purple has been about an increased commitment to overtly spiritual practices: more time praying, more attending terce and mass at the abbey, more reading scripture, more doing church.  

This past Advent, I was frustrated that tasks related to the sale of Rambling Farmhouse consumed my mental and physical energy and kept me from being present in the purple. Then, Julie pointed out that sorting through the contents of a house collected over fifteen years of life was a very Advent thing to be occupied with. And she was right.

And here I am again in the purple time of Lent not doing more church, but instead doing more sorting, more introspection, more decision making. More discernment.

More preparation for the moment when my life begins again.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

a glimpse of freedom

Rambling Farmhouse has new owners.



One down, one to go.

Monday, January 12, 2015

on moving

I'm writing this morning from Rustic Lakehouse, where my table-desk and my rollie chair have been placed in their new location by the south window that looks out over the lake. It feels like we have arrived.

This move has brought so many complex emotions.

I feel relieved at having the burden of responsibility for Rambling Farmhouse and its acres taken off my shoulders. The buyers have great plans for the house and the land, and I'm excited to see their beginning.

Yet, although I had already taken leave of the dreams Adam and I had dreamt at Rambling Farmhouse, there is further sadness in this physical parting, and I'm sad to leave the place where so much of my life happened.

At the same time, I'm frustrated at my younger self, who chose not to fight with her husband about the importance of keeping stuff organized and who allowed herself to buy into the "we have enough space, so it's not a problem" line of thinking.

I was very conscious yesterday of having asked the people I love to loan me their arms and backs, their vehicles, and, most critically, their time to finish clearing out Rambling Farmhouse. As we were working it became clear that there was more still there than I had thought, and I am embarrassed by the quantity and content of the stuff I asked them to schlepp for me.

I am so very grateful for their help. Seven carloads of stuff went to Goodwill, three carloads of shelves and  camping gear went to the storage unit, and ten carloads (three of them books) came to Rustic Lakehouse.

I'm grappling with my image of myself as an un-materialistic and non-acqisitive person.

I'm resolved to continue pruning the things that share my space so that the next time I move I can be proud of what I take.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

walls

Seventeen years ago, I took the train to Indiana to ring in the New Year with my boyfriend.

He said, "I want a house. If I buy a house, will you come for the summer?"

I said yes.

Over spring break I helped him move in to Rambling Farmhouse.

I can still see it as it was then with the avocado refrigerator and the goldenrod stove, the drop ceiling and the shag carpeting.

"The Brady Bunch threw up in this house," the realtor said.

We set up a Danish modern couch, leather swivel chairs, a pole lamp, and string art. And we owned it.

After that first summer we still loved each other, so the summer after that I moved all my worldly possessions to Rambling Farmhouse, and the summer after that we got married.

He carried me across the threshold. The next year, we carried Anna into this house, and the year after that, Sofia.

And then I carried him over the threshold.

Within these walls I became a wife, a mother, a professional, a widow. These walls have contained my adulthood.

Today begins my life beyond these walls.

The movers are coming to take the heavy furniture to our (temporary) new digs at Rustic Lakehouse. Over the course of the next couple of weeks, the girls and I will sort our worldly possessions. Some things we will carry over a new threshold, some things we will part with forever.

Then, I will hand over the keys to a new family, who will claim these walls as we once did.

Friday, September 26, 2014

breadwinner

Two Mays ago Old Cat's death was hard on all of us. It was especially hard for me to watch our younger cat Jack wonder where she had gone.  When Jack came into our lives as a strapping young boy, Old Cat was already old, and, although smaller than he was, she boxed his ears and told him in no uncertain terms that she was #1 Cat. She had first claim to my lap, to my bed, to any open doors, and to the food. For weeks after she died, when I set the food down Jack looked around to see if she was coming before he started to eat. He looked at me with disbelief that it could be just for him. This past January when Buttercup came into our lives, Jack went into a tailspin again. He knew he didn't want to be #2 Cat to this young brat, but he didn't know how to be #1 Cat.

As I've been working on job applications these past couple of weeks, it occurs to me that I'm a little bit like Jack. While I wouldn't say that I was subordinate to my late husband, I had settled into my role as the trailing spouse, the one whose career would always happen in the space around the breadwinner's career. There were a lot of practical reasons that Adam would always be the breadwinner: Because his age and his co-op experience put him ten years ahead of me in career development, because he was an engineer, and I am a language teacher, because he was a man, and I am a woman, his salary would always have outstripped mine. For most of our marriage, in fact, my contribution to the family's income was ten percent of his.

When I started my PhD, the desired plan was that I would find work within daily or weekly commuting distance from Rambling Farmhouse, working as an adjunct until something full-time or tenure track came up. As things got worse for Adam at his workplace here, we started talking about my doing a national search for full-time work and moving the whole family to whatever I found, but it still had to be a geographic area within a daily or weekly commute to something for Adam.

My trailing spouse status was not only a result of our relative earning potentials, though. It was also about the difference in how driven we were. Adam always wanted to reach higher; he wanted to manage a group of engineers, to run a multi-million dollar project, to move the company from good to great, to start his own business, to work at the cutting edge. Me? I don't crave leadership. I don't burn to see my name on a publication. I don't aspire to eminent scholar status. I don't settle for shoddy, but I'll never be a rock star researcher. My elbows aren't sharp enough, and I don't own brass knuckles. I want to do what I love and do it well, and really, that's the perfect attitude for a trailing spouse.

I don't get to have that attitude anymore.

Insurance settlements and Social Security payments buy me some time retool the plan, but they will not last forever. As they cease to fill the coffers each month, I have to take this career that was intended to be secondary and find a way to support myself, my children, and our critters in the present while also preparing for college and retirement in the future. All of a sudden, I'm the #1 Cat, but no one is offering me first choice of the food each night.

I have to be the breadwinner, and it frightens me.