As I write this post, I am sitting on my parents’ screened-in porch, listening to the sounds of the neighborhood, covered in a thin but ever-present layer of dog hair, drinking a Diet Pepsi (sorry Mary, I have no idea why there is no Coke in this house, please don’t be ashamed of me), and batting away the occasional advances of two loving and eager dogs whose attention-seeking behavior is clearly a ploy to steal my prime spot on the loveseat where I’ve been sprawled all afternoon.
It feels good to be home. Really, it does. And I know it will be hard to leave again when I load up my car this fall to drive all the way out west, but getting back here was hard. Over the course of one week, I watched my students graduate and move out, then gradually said goodbye to each of my friends and coworkers as they headed home — some for just the summer, some for only a few weeks, but all of whom I had no idea when I would see again. After the residence hall had emptied out, I began the daunting and stressful task of cleaning out and packing up my apartment — a collection of furniture, clothes, and knick knacks that have made two adjoining dorm rooms feel like home for the past three years. All I could take with me were the things that would fit in my sedan, so a giant purge was in order. However, in case you hadn’t noticed by now, I’m a pretty sentimental person. Getting rid of things was an ordeal. I didn’t want to part with the six dollar end table I’d picked up from the thrift store or the throw pillows I’d sewn that matched my bedding. I wasn’t ready to sort through my nail polish collection and decide between two shades of lavender, or throw out the half empty bottle of perfume I never use, or reduce the size of my mason jar collection to just a couple. As I sorted through donations, trash, and things to keep, I watched my life collect into piles. Stuff. Things. Objects. Things that could be considered meaningless but meant something to me.
As much as I wish I could be the kind of person who can throw her life into a few suitcases and boxes and be ready to move across the country, I’m not. I like to be at home, wherever I am. I like decorations — little random jars filled with things, pictures on the walls, fuzzy blankets draped across the couch, shelves filled with books and movies and frames. I like comfort and coziness, and I’d built that for myself at my home in Michigan. It felt safe. As I looked ahead at the next chapter — moving to a new city, a new region, going back to school, taking a bunch of new risks — I wanted all of that safety to come with me. I wanted to pick up my living room, with the shelf on the wall filled with books and records, the squishy couch where my kids curled up and told me their secrets, and the old tube TV that I bought before my freshman year of college, and bring it with me to Spokane. I didn’t want to sort through it, I just wanted it all to come with me. I wanted to walk into my new apartment, turn on my same twinkly lights, and see all of my things there, greeting me like old friends.
In the end, I emptied my two rooms into my tiny car. It wasn’t easy. I got rid of things I didn’t want to, but I kept all the basics, the things that were irreplaceable (and plenty of things that are, but I’m stubborn). I had no less than three major meltdowns. One such meltdown occurred two days before I was scheduled to drive back to Minnesota, as I sat surveying the refugee-like state I was living in, half-packed boxes and trash bags surrounding me, and sent a panicked text to my friend Mary, who promptly responded with “Where are you? I’m coming.” (She showed up no less than five minutes later with a bar of chocolate. I don’t know what I’m going to do without her next year.) And it was among those boxes and bags, as I cried to Mary about everything left to do the next day and my fears about leaving and how my mom hadn’t been home when I’d called her earlier, that I realized it wasn’t just my stuff I was attached to. It was everything. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to my friends who were still here, to say goodbye to this place. I had spent so much of my last days there tearing through my belongings, throwing things in trash bags and deciding what was worth the space, and not enough time making my peace with leaving.
That final night, with my car loaded up, my walls bare, and only some blankets and a massive bag of laundry left in my bedroom, I cried a lot. I said goodbye to some of the most important people in my life and sobbed. I brushed my teeth while crying. I tried to calculate if there would still be room in my car for my laundry and I cried about that. I hugged my teddy bear which I had purposely left unpacked and cried some more. But I let myself cry because, fuck, the whole thing sucked, and I wasn’t about to pretend that it didn’t.
I drove the whole twelve hours back to Minnesota in one shot, the first time I’ve ever done that alone without splitting it over two days. I filled up my gas tank and shelled out the $4.25 for an iced mocha because that’s what you do when you’re about to drive all damn day and you’re on the constant verge of tears. And even though I had been dreading the drive and I cried a lot during the first few hours, I survived it. I sang through countless Broadway soundtracks, I made up a bunch of weird harmonies to old John Mayer songs, I cursed my car for its lack of air conditioning and cruise control, I got stuck in countless construction zones, I refused to stop for fast food and instead subsisted on snacks, and, with four hours left, I crammed the raggedy blanket I’ve had since infancy under my ass to try and elevate my partially-numb right leg and keep going. But when I got home, my mom had bought four different flavors of Ben & Jerry’s to welcome me. My dogs jumped up and down. My dad told me we didn’t have to unload the car until tomorrow. I collapsed into the comfort and familiarity of a place that wasn’t my usual home and I knew it would do for the summer.
So now I’m here, with another chapter of my life behind me (and most of it still in boxes, because I hate unpacking). And I still feel a little bit like there’s a Michigan-shaped hole in my heart, and I know it’s going to feel that way for awhile. Until I move to my new apartment and I fill it with new old thrift store tables and mason jars and twinkly lights. Until I find the new people who will play Cards Against Humanity with me on a Monday night or sit at the coffee shop for hours on end. Until I have time to let my feet sink into the new soil around them and my eyes adjust to the streets and buildings so that they become just another familiar sight. Until it feels like my home.
I have unending thanks for the things I gained in magical northern Michigan over three years and four summers. I don’t think I would be sitting here, writing this post, dreaming about the future if I hadn’t taken a chance and gone there in the first place. So even though goodbye is one of the hardest words I’ve had to say in that place, I’m thankful that I got the chance to say it at all.